Our Response to September 11 Is A Test of the Maturity of the Human Species
For the past few days the skies have been overcast, rainy, and downright gloomy here in the southern New Mexico mountains. The astronomer in me would normally find this rather frustrating, but right now I don't really seem to care, since it matches my mood almost exactly.
Like all Americans, and I suspect - and hope - most people around the planet, I was shocked and horrified by the events of this past Tuesday. I've seen the televised images countless times: the passenger jetliners crashing into the towers of the World Trade Center, the subsequent crumbling of those structures onto the ground; and I'm still not sure that the fact that these are not glitzy special effects in some adventure movie, but rather are stone cold reality, has sunk into my brain. I cannot even begin to imagine the horror that must have been experienced by those aboard the hijacked airliners, in and near the World Trade Center, and in the Pentagon during those moments when their lives were snatched from them. As I contemplate the thousands of innocent people who lost their lives in such a senseless slaughter, I search for answers to the same questions that I'm sure haunt everyone else who has seen these images: who could have done this? And why?
As horrible as these scenes are, what sinks me into the deepest despair is the fact that this is nothing new. We've seen this thing before, countless times. We see it all the time in the land that some people call Israel and others call Palestine: the seemingly never-ending stream of young Palestinian suicide bombers in supermarkets and shopping malls, and in the continuing shelling of Palestinians and demolition of their homes by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. We saw it in the frightened face of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durrah before he was cut down by gunfire at Netzarim, and in the bloodied bodies of Israeli soldiers dangling from the window of the police station at Ramallah.
We see it elsewhere, too. We've seen slaughter in the streets of Northern Ireland, and in the jungles of East Timor. We saw it during the Nazi regime, when six million Jews were sent to unspeakable deaths during the Holocaust, and in the killing fields of Cambodia during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, and in the ethnic cleansing that has gone on in the Balkans. We saw it in all the burnings-at-the-stake during the Inquisition, in the streets running full of blood during the Crusades, and in the bloodbath upon bloodbath upon bloodbath that has marked almost every era of human history.
And before we Americans start to feel too smug, we've seen it here, too, and by our own hands. We're seeing it right now in hate-filled attacks against American citizens simply because they are of Arab origin or of Islamic faith. We saw it in the beating and dragging deaths of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd. We saw it in the destruction of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. We've seen it in faraway places like My Lai and No Gun Ri, and closer to home in the death squads of Honduras and El Salvador. We saw it in the slave ships that came from Africa, and in the slave plantations of the 19th Century, and in the lynchings of the 20th. We saw it in the way our ancestors took this land from those who were here first.
And, lest we forget, the death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki - cities full of unarmed civilians - numbered in the tens of thousands. Let's also remember that these were only a small fraction of the tens of millions of lives - military and civilian, and on all sides - that were lost during World War II.
Of course, we humans have accomplished many wonderful things as well. We've landed people on the moon and brought them safely back to Earth, and we've made extraordinary progress against the many diseases that have afflicted us throughout our history. We've gleaned secrets from the farthest galaxies in the universe, and from the cells within our bodies that tell us who we are. And we've made progress on other fronts, too; we often talk through our disagreements, both as individuals and as nations, and don't always find it necessary to sink to fisticuffs, or to war.
My heart sings when I think of the heroism of the rescue workers in New York, many of whom have risked - and sacrificed - their lives for their fellow human beings, and of the people around the country, and around the world, who have donated their blood for the victims of Tuesday's tragedy. I rejoice as I continue to receive messages of sympathy and shock from friends and colleagues all over the world (including, I add for the benefit of Americans who might want to engage in stereotyping, my scientific colleagues in Iran). When I contemplate these types of actions, I begin to believe that perhaps there is hope for us humans.
There are parts of me that want to wreak the vilest vengeance upon the perpetrators of Tuesday's actions, and that of course is a sentiment that I am seeing many places now. I hear talk of declaring, and preparing for, a state of war. But against who? And, ultimately, what good would it do? You can't very well threaten with death someone who considers it the highest honor to be killed for his cause. And even if we were able to wage war against and kill those who were responsible, aren't we just going to provide incentive for many more individuals who would want to follow in their footsteps?
And if we do engage in war, aren't we far more likely to kill unarmed civilians than we are to kill the responsible perpetrators? What good does that do? The passions this would enflame would almost certainly provide recruitment incentives for our adversaries. Perhaps more importantly, it would simply bring us down to their level. I would somehow like to believe that we can be better than that, and that we can rise above our darkest impulses. Can we?
Our response to this past week's attacks represents one of the severest challenges we have ever faced as a nation, and as the human race as a whole. I have to admit that I don't have much in the way of answers here. I'd like to think - with every part of my being - that there is some way that we could bring the perpetrators of Tuesday's actions to appropriate justice, yet still retain the humanity that we've struggled so hard to achieve. But maybe there isn't. As much as this might go against everything I'd like to say I believe in, perhaps the only way to prevent recurrences of events like last Tuesday's is indeed to engage in an all-out, no-holds-barred, civilians-be-damned, total state of war.
If that's really the case, then I do have a couple of suggestions. After we've made the world safe from terrorism, or whatever it is we'd be trying to do, let's take a good, hard look at all the carnage we'll have left around us - that's if there are any of us left to look around, of course - and let's drop any pretense we might have that we're somehow "noble" or "righteous." We should also forget for a while about exploring space, or researching stem cells, or trying to figure out the mysteries of the universe, or other such pursuits. Those are activities for a mature species, and it'll be all too clear that we'll still have a lot of growing up left to do.
Alan Hale is founder and director of the non-profit Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, and was co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1995. During the past two years he has led two delegations of American scientists, students, and educators on "scientific diplomacy" visits to Iran.