Friends Don’t Let Friends Destroy Themselves
In September 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, people gathered by the thousands across the country of Iran in spontaneous demonstrations and candlelight vigils to show support for America in its hour of grief. At one football match in Tehran, sixty thousand football fans held a minute of silence in sympathy for the 9/11 victims.
Were these demonstrations a form of protest against the country’s rabidly anti-American leadership? No. The leadership shared the sentiments of the masses. In his first public remarks following the attacks, Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “Islam condemns the massacre of defenseless people, whether Muslim or Christian or others, anywhere and by any means.” Iran’s president, chimed in, condemning the attacks and professing “deep regret and sympathy for the victims.”
The sympathy of iran’s people and leadership was all the more remarkable given Iran’s historical relationship with the United States, which overthrew its democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, backed the hideous torture regime of the Shah for the next 25 years, armed and aided Iraq in the bloody 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran throughout the 1990s. Yet this event, 9/11, pierced the shrouds of enmity to reveal the sympathetic connection that links all human beings to one another, even and especially those who call each other “enemy.”
Expressions of sympathy and support flooded in from every quarter of the world. Russia, China too vowed their support. Yes, America had a lot of friends in those days.
If only those friends had been able or willing to stop America from destroying itself. Because that is what it did. Or to be more precise, it accelerated down a path of self-destruction that it had been on since the 1960s. It was an alluring path, because its signposts read security, justice, and vengeance. Any destruction that was happening in Afghanistan, then Iraq, Libya, and Syria, seemed to be happening to other people, not ourselves.
These “forever wars” bankrupted America, not only of trillions of dollars that could have gone toward infrastructure, health, and the environment, but also of the respect and goodwill of other nations. The suffering it wreaked in Iraq — half a million casualties of men, women, and children from 2003-2008 — and throughout the region (perhaps 4.5 million deaths all told as a result of the War on Terror, plus countless families displaced), exceeded by several orders of magnitude the number who died on 9/11. And, needless to say, all but a handful of these deaths were of people utterly innocent of the crimes of that day. Thus it was that America swiftly squandered the sympathy and moral standing that it had gained after 9/11.
Twenty years later, the United States looks more and more like the countries it has destroyed. Its bombs ruined the roads, bridges, power plants, factories, and other civilian infrastructure in other countries; today its own infrastructure falls into disrepair. For decades it has propped up authoritarian regimes that violated the civil liberties of their citizens; today its own government is increasingly authoritarian as its Constitutional freedoms lay in tatters. For decades it has visited violence upon the world; meanwhile, its own levels of domestic violence — on the streets, in the home, and toward oneself in the form of addiction, depression, and suicide — are some of the highest in the world. Finally, War on Terror policies fomented sectarian violence and civil war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Can any American deny that our own country too is sliding toward civic strife?
A principle of karma seems to operate at the level of the nation-state. “As you do unto others, so also you do unto yourself.”
On October 7, 2023, Hamas conducted a merciless terrorist attack on Israel, killing 1200 people, most of whom were civilians. People inside and outside the country called it “Israel’s 9/11.” As after America’s 9/11, there was an upsurge of sympathy around the world for the victims, their families, and the traumatized nation of Israel.
In the two or three months since then, Israel has, like the US after 9/11, squandered all of that sympathy as it has followed the same signposts reading security, justice, and vengeance that point in fact down the path of self-destruction. Its bombing and invasion of Gaza has already taken the lives of at least 20,000 people, mostly women and children, nearly all of them innocent of the crimes of October 7. It has destroyed over 100,000 homes and displaced nearly the entire population of Gaza, which now faces severe hunger, cold, and disease. Not only has Israel destroyed whatever remained of its international standing after decades of land grabs and persecution of the Palestinians, but it has also ruined any chance of friendly relations with its neighbors, fulfilling instead the narratives of their worst hardliners. And — the sharpest irony of all — Israel has not, will not, and cannot even achieve its stated aim of wiping out Hamas. Why? Because even if it kills every last Hamas leader and militant, it has created a vast new crop of extremists who will carry on Hamas’s ideology and violence, perhaps in even more virulent form. With every dead child and every ruined life, there is a brother, a cousin, a new Jihadi somewhere else who will join the new Hamas, whatever name and form it takes.
As Israel proceeds towards its self-destruction, those who believe themselves to be its friends not only fail to stop it; they profess their unwavering, unconditional support for its campaign of mass murder. A true friend who understands the principle of national karma would counsel the opposite. A true friend would have said, on October 8, “You have a unique opportunity to break the cycle of hate. When you fly your bombing sorties over Gaza, fill the planes with pictures of the victims and the word, ‘Enough!’ And then lay your proposal for peace and justice before the world. Start with international peacekeepers and truth & reconciliation commissions. Look honestly at how you have contributed to the conditions that breed terrorism against you, and stop! Because if you unleash your vengeance, you will intensify those conditions a hundredfold. But if you make a move towards peace at this crucial moment when the whole world is watching, you will alter the course of history.”
Say you have a friend who, as a scrawny youth, was bullied mercilessly by his classmates. Now he has grown up, a strapping man, a fighter. He has turned the tables on the bullies, humiliated them in turn. One day, as you sit with him at a cafe, he looks out the window and sees one of those bullies vandalizing his car. Mounting a towering rage, he prepares to storm off to the bully’s house where he will beat the bully senseless, destroy his property, murder his children, and burn down his house. What do you do as his friend? Do you hand him a baseball bat (or a 2000-pound bomb)? Do you drive him to the bully’s house?
For thousands of years, a friend has been one who joins you in a fight, a struggle, a dispute against your enemy. As long as we organize the world into friends and enemies, good guys and bad guys, a friend will be the one who takes your side. The tribe, the village, the world divides into two warring halves, each subject to the delusion that victory over the Other is the way to a better world. Another story beckons us though, the story of interconnection, the story of interbeing. It recognizes the fundamental inseparability of self and other. A true friend who stands in that consciousness will not offer the false counsel of security through domination. Perhaps Khamenei had an inkling of this when he added to his expression of sympathy, “And so Iran condemns any attack on Afghanistan that may lead to another human tragedy.”
The habits of us-versus-them run deep, and the institutions built on those habits bear a mighty inertia. But occasionally, life offers humanity a dramatic opportunity to change them. One such opportunity was 9/11, which posed the question, “Who shall ye be?” Perhaps the prayers and vigils of the Iranians in the streets were not merely expressions of sympathy. Whether consciously or no, perhaps they were praying for a miracle, the kind of miracle that happens when God opens one’s heart and lifts the veil from one’s eyes, and reveals not only the depths of one’s own ignorance and folly, but also a heretofore invisible path, the path less traveled, the path to peace, the path to healing, the path to the true Holy Land. It has no signpost at all, only dire warnings of danger affixed onto its wire-bound gate. Only a fool would take that path, it seems to the disciple of Ares. Because a step down that path of peace and forgiveness is an offering that leaves you vulnerable. It takes courage to choose it. Perhaps the Iranians in September of 2001 were praying that we Americans might have courage.
It would have taken true leadership for George W. Bush to resist the temptation to launch a war of vengeance. Instead, at that moment when the US had license to do pretty much whatever it wanted, he chose to exploit the world’s sympathy, and the indignation and fear of his own people, to intensify a program of world domination — the same program that led to the 9/11 attacks in the first place. The neocons in the Bush administration — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc. — hatched a plan to “take out seven countries in five years”: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran. Obviously, 9/11 was but a pretext for this campaign for world domination. None of those countries had anything to do with the terror attacks.
Similarly, Israel’s right-wing government is exploiting October 7 to intensify the program of Greater Israel and total domination of the Palestinians it has pursued for the last twenty or thirty years. The kind of courageous leadership that could have steered the entire world onto a peace path after 9/11 is just as lacking in Israel today and, it seems, among its “friends.”
It is too late to reverse the carnage that followed 9/11, or October 7. No leader stood up to fulfill the destiny of those moments. (True, many leaders outside Israel and its “allies” have called for peace, but at such moments, it is the one with the means and rationale to choose vengeance who has the power to change the course of history by choosing peace instead.) Yet it is not too late for leadership. It is not too late for Israel’s true friends to take away the baseball bat and remind its leaders and its people that no good will come to you, neither security nor prosperity nor freedom, from killing thousands of innocent children.
It sounds like a cynical and callous argument to suggest halting a moral atrocity merely because the results will be bad for yourself. Actually, it is a reminder that “self-interest” is not what the war-soaked mind conceives it to be. The friend says, “This is not who you are, my brother.”
The foundation for peace can only be a more enlightened understanding of self-interest, cognizant of the inseparability of self and other, of human and nature, of Jew and Arab, of oppressor and oppressed, of enemy and friend. In fact, humanity has already moved quite far into this understanding. We are slowly digesting the reality that Total War has been obsolete since 1949, when the Soviet Union developed its atomic bomb. Imperial Rome would have had no compunctions about destroying the entire population of Gaza; indeed, the Greeks and Romans frequently put entire populations to the sword (at least the males). Today, though, whether it is Russia in Ukraine or Israel in Gaza, the side with the military capacity to totally annihilate the other refrains from doing so. The cynic might say that is only because of fear of consequences in the court of world opinion. Even so, world opinion expresses a consciousness that has to some degree infiltrated nearly every human being.
How much more carnage, how many more cycles of vengeance and hate will it take before we realize the futility of annihilating evil? What will it take before we recognize that anyone who tries, becomes evil themselves? Who will be the leader, who will be the friend, who urges us collectively onto another path?
It is too late to reverse the carnage that humanity has endured in its horrible history, of which Gaza is but a pinprick. But it is not too late for leadership, and it is not too late for a miracle. Hoping for a miracle is often cover for despair, but the kind of miracle that, were it to happen in the amplification chamber of the Holy Land, could transform the world does not require divine intercession but only human choice. A great mass of people, including those who have suffered the most from violence, are yearning for someone to step into the political vacuum of peace leadership. Let us hold that as an expectation and urge our leaders to meet it. The time has come to say, Enough!
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