Would you say a little bit by way of reflections on September 11 five years later?
It’s hard to say anything about September 11 that hasn’t been said before, but some things need to be said again and again, so I am glad you’ve asked me this. In the first few months after that morning, I, like most other people, spoke an awful lot to friends and acquaintances about how we ought to understand that extraordinary atrocity. The great and spontaneous feelings of sympathy for the victims we all felt were expressed in words, in donations, in trips down to the devastated region to keep small shops and eating places going…. But after some months, I began to notice that many people, even including close friends, were quite incapable (actually that is the wrong word, I should say ‘unwilling’ since these are not helpless tendencies) of showing any parallel sympathy for the very much larger number of people being bombed and killed in Afghanistan –a far greater wrong because that invasion amounted to the virtually total destruction of an already parched and hungry nation. Quite apart from the moral disappointment one feels about this, one can take this chance to reflect (since that is what you asked me to do) in a more general way about our insensitivity to the suffering of people who are not in the immediate vicinity.
Perhaps the first thing to notice about ourselves is that we have tended to respond to September 11 or to the terrorist actions in London and other parts of the world, by simply saying that they are so atrocious and unpardonable that they could not be motivated by any serious political motives or any genuine grievance. But when this is not just too quick and reactive, it is at best obtuse and (perhaps more correctly) at worst, self-serving. The words on the lips of terrorists which complain of the American government’s actions in various parts of the world cannot be wholly beside the point and it is our responsibility to pay attention to them, even as we rightly condemn the terrorist acts as unpardonable. The fact is that the words of complaint and criticism on the lips of terrorists are on the lips of many millions of more people on the street, who are not terrorists at all, but ordinary Muslims who have no great love for the terrorists and in fact would be deeply opposed to them but for the fact that they feel that to be critical of them would be letting the side down and capitulating to America’s direct and indirect state- terrorist actions towards their own people for decades.
Akeel Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanties at Columbia University.