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The Cries That Bind

In their pain, Americans must not turn away from the rest of humanity's suffering.

September 30, 2002|JOHN J. THATAMANIL

The events of the last year have enabled many Americans to comprehend both the disfiguring pain and the redemptive power of vulnerability. Unfortunately, it seems now that some remember only the pain. Our collective national energies are being marshaled on our behalf, if not at our behest, in a quixotic pursuit of absolute invulnerability and total security.

Perhaps we are a people incapable of sustaining an appreciation for the inevitable fragility of human life. We refuse to learn the one irrevocable lesson of the Sept. 11 attacks: Our nation, regardless of its might, is not and never can be exempt from the atrocious evil and suffering that regularly visits so many who live outside our borders. As we ready for war with Iraq, we may soon discover that our inability to learn this lesson will carry a toll beyond our reckoning.

Last year, Americans experienced a deep sense of solidarity and kinship in the midst of our grieving and our loss. The enormity of the wound we suffered gave us no other option. New Yorkers in particular gave up the routine, pleasurable anonymity of being part of a frenetic, thriving urban populace and began to look one another in the eye. David Letterman and Dan Rather wept on TV. Politicians engaged with civility.

All this transpired because we realized that we are all citizens of the republic of the wounded and the vulnerable. For a moment, we understood that the borders of that republic cannot be patrolled and that no missile shield can cover it. It is blind to race, creed, ethnicity, gender, nationality. The boundary lines present in our cartography are absent from the geography. Such wounds as we suffered are not sought out, but when they come, they have can bring about powerful and redemptive transformations. The tremendous international outpouring of sympathy came with a fragile faith that Americans might understand better the needs and sufferings of the global community.

Those hopes seem to have been misplaced. On the domestic front, we pursue invulnerability at the expense of the freedoms we cherish. We seem willing to deprive ourselves and those we view as threatening of fundamental rights, including the right to due process. On the international front, we refuse to be constrained by the power of international bodies, such as the United Nations, and we ignore our allies. Our reaction to our injuries has led us not into communion but isolation.

Acknowledging our own vulnerability does not mean that we should be cavalier about our national security and abandon vigorous efforts to protect ourselves and our loved ones. That would be foolish, even suicidal. Nevertheless, we cannot let our fear drive us into a practically impossible and morally problematic quest to go it alone. Nor can we act in ways that suggest invulnerability is a legitimate and realistic goal.

We must not repress the ugly truth that only a box cutter may stand between us and the horror.

Though our loss leaves us injured, terrified and angered, we must not refuse the sole, delicate good that pain has bequeathed to our nation: our kinship with the whole of the human community.

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John J. Thatamanil is an assistant professor of religious studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.

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