September 13, 2001, Haaretz, Op-Ed, Meek and Stammering, by Meron Benvenisti,
The apocalyptic scenes and depth of the tragedy turn every effort to express something about them - no matter how sincere and noble - into an embarrassing stammer. Nevertheless, people who use the pen, keyboard or microphone can't remain silent: They feel a duty to explain to themselves and to others how, why, and what to do.
It seems that the ultimate test of all our words is what Barbara Olson, who died in the crash into the Pentagon, would say if she could hear us. After all, her last words were: "What should I tell the pilot to do?" - leaving us speechless and filled with humility. Do we have an answer for her? And if we don't, maybe we should simply make do with reciting psalms in her memory and in the memory of the thousands who died. "Out of the depths have I cried unto the, O God. Lord, hear my voice: Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications." (Psalm CXXX)
But the dead are doomed to have the living turn their deaths into forms that suit the needs of the latter, and use their spilled blood to advance their own objectives; after all, the dead have no voice.
The attempt to give meaning to an apocalypse requires finding historical parallels, and the one that is being heard over and over is Pearl Harbor. But the comparison belittles the meaning of the tragedy of September 11. In 1941, the Japanese destroyed the U.S. fleet in the Pacific Ocean, but it was thousands of miles from the American continent, which was left free of mass violence the way it had been for more than 150 years.
There can be no likening between the events of the World Wars - or the Vietnam War - and the terrible blow at America's heart. The descendants of immigrants from the Old World believed they had escaped the fate of their ancestors, that they had left behind the ethnic and religious violence of the Old World and had built themselves a pluralist and open society in which there are no identity numbers and a sense of aversion to signs of a police state prevails. Now, suddenly, they find that globalization has also brought just what they had run from to their complacent home.
Now they face a terrible dilemma: The calls for tightening security and behaving like a country under siege will ruin the American dream, and, in effect, terror will win. If the U.S. president listens to those voices from the Old World that are trying to enlist him into the defense of "the free world" - and, in effect, drag him into a "clash of civilizations" - he'll sink into a vicious circle of bloody revenge and counter-revenge. But if he licks his wounds, buries his dead and decides that the American dream can survive even a horrible tragedy like September 11, the terrorists could interpret this as a weakness; the free world would be disappointed with an apparent American incompetence; and his own people won't be able to give vent their feelings of revenge.
This is an Israeli dilemma, which the Americans hoped they would always be able to observe from the sidelines. Indeed, Israelis - more than any other nation - feel profound solidarity with Americans and not only because of the intimate relations between the two nations. The terror that strikes at us, the suicidal terrorists, their religious affiliations, the myth of a "defensive democracy," and especially the hope that now they will understand Israel's own steps to eliminate terrorism have made the attack in the heart of New York feel like it took place in Tel Aviv.
Drawn into the tragedy, Israel declares a day of mourning and enlists blood donors. But it also has its own agenda: A team from the Spokesman's Office of the Israel Defense Forces was sent to film the scenes of joy and candy being handed out in East Jerusalem "for public relations purposes." The politicians compete with each other to present the tragedy as proof of their own long-standing political attitudes toward the Palestinians and use their best rhetorical skills to call for an international coalition to save Western civilization.
They ignore, however, the fact that not every Israeli action in the territories is deemed proper by the standards of Western civilization; not every act of violence perpetrated by the Palestinians is perceived by "the enlightened world" as an act of terror in keeping with the events that took place in New York and Washington; and putting Israel at the front of the coalition against terrorism will not necessarily be welcomed by the free world, just like in the days of the Gulf War. Hopefully, the tragedy won't be used as a means to remove the last of the restraining blocks left in "the war against Palestinian terror," with the old excuse that "they danced on the rooftops."
There's no doubt that the world after September 11 will be different to the world before this date, but what kind of world it will be remains an unknown. What is clear is that if it is shaped only by feelings of vengeance, and not in accordance with the need to deal with the rotting soil in which the hate, envy and frustration of the terrorists grew, it won't be a better world.
But what do we know? We're standing here, mouths agape, full of humility and stammering.
Meron Benvenisti is the ex-deputy mayor of Jerusalem