September 11: An American Crisis and a Global Opportunity

I boarded a Red Cross bus on the afternoon of September 11 as part of an emergency assistance team from my medical college in Westchester County, New York, 35 miles north of where the buildings of the World Trade Center had stood a few hours before.

The news began to pour in – many thousands of people injured, large numbers feared lost – during a short series of events that had turned a beautiful Tuesday morning along the Eastern seaboard into a scene of epic disaster. Knowing that the hospitals served by our college would be placed on high alert, my first thought was how to be of help, and at the same time, how to stay out of the way.

It was not long before the first helicopter arrived at the medical center located across the street from my office, transporting burn victims for treatment. As the day continued, news began to circulate that the Red Cross was providing a bus to transfer "excess" personnel into the city, a category which described me perfectly, as my work thus far had been limited to carrying supplies from one hospital floor to the next. As all roads into the city had been blocked and train services halted, this seemed an opportunity to be of help where help was really needed, and so I went to the appointed place to scratch my name on the volunteer list.

Ground Zero

By this process I found myself on the Red Cross bus seated next to a young intern, Miri, whose first comment was: "I came to the US to learn American medicine, but I think we are getting ready to see more than I bargained for." Although an American citizen by birth, Miri was born in Lebanon of Arab descent and had attended the American University of Beirut. I soon learned that since entering medical school in 1996, she had returned to Lebanon twice to work in Palestinian refugee camps near the Israeli border as a healthcare volunteer. It was there that she met her fianc‚, Michael, now a radiology hospital resident. She said this would not be the first time either of them had seen the effects of war.

As I had been near that same border area some 17 years ago, we spoke of the plight of the people there, which unfortunately has not changed much since then: the lingering poverty and hopelessness that is a daily way of life, along with fear of being caught in military crossfire.

By United Nations count, there are 360,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, nearly all of whom continue to live in the squalor of refugee camps. For more than half a century, they have been caught between Lebanon, which does not want them, and Israel, which refuses to allow their return. Unfortunately, theirs is one of many desperate situations in the Middle East among chronically poor and displaced people, including 1.2 million Palestinians living in 59 refugee camps, and 2.3 million displaced elsewhere in that region.

As the bus made its way along the west side highway beside the Hudson River, the growing plume of smoke signaled the magnitude of what lay ahead. Crossing through Chelsea and along the edge of Greenwich Village, we soon went from the recognizable to the unrecognizable as we moved closer to Ground Zero. But our focus was not upon the staggering scene of burned-out buildings and ash-covered existence, but on aiding the rescue effort, and saving human lives. When we arrived and took our stations, we were told that the rescue was proving unproductive, which was very bad news. The rest of that tragic story is well known by now.

From Whither to Why

Medicine teaches that there are two autonomous reactions when any organism, single cell to hominid, is attacked: protection and assault. This was an attack upon America, my home, and feelings ran deep. But our team knew that is was crucial to focus on the tasks at hand, and not on the many emotions, sounds, unrelenting odors, and chaotic sights that competed for our attention at this unforgettable scene. As we moved from the periphery of this event into the direct experience of it, questions of "who is responsible" and "from where" were replaced by "why." Why would anyone commit this deed?

The American flag flew broadly at the impact sight, and my heart, as it always does, responded spontaneously to the sight of that banner and the symbolism "for which it stands," but the situation at Ground Zero represented far more than nation USA. The people helping and the people being helped were from many backgrounds and nationalities. No one cared during this melting-pot moment where you were from or what you believed or in what year your ancestors traveled to these shores. Goals and the value of life, all human life, were shared – and all hands were needed. This was clearly a human tragedy, signaling that something is clearly wrong within the human family.

As I worked alongside Miri and the others in our team to provide assistance to those with lung and eye distress and to those in need of minor bandaging (mostly rescue workers by this stage), I continued to think about earlier conversation on the bus. The scenes of the Lebanese refugee camps Miri described no longer seemed so far away.

During the following two days, while staffing hospitals near the site of the attack, and working among people who, like me, wore this tragedy on their countenance, I began to see this crisis not through American eyes, but through human eyes, which is essential if we are to understand what has occurred – and why. This American crisis requires that we accept the challenge to understand, regardless of how far and deep we must go to find our answers.

The Common Basis of Life

It is difficult for Americans to understand why there are many thousands of people in the world who are angry enough to carry out terrorist acts, but I think it critically important that we try to understand, and that a plea go out to our policy makers to do likewise. Simplistic slogans such as "freedom haters," religious zealots," and "good versus evil" are unsatisfying. These notions are formed when viewing scenes on television, or by visiting an impact area, but not from working deep within one. This is not a problem of freedom or religion or even a problem among nations, but a problem of right relationship among world peoples, a world that has suddenly become smaller.

Is America, "home of the brave," indeed brave enough to face the core problems in this world that extend beyond its shores? Unimaginable depths of hellhole poverty affect over 1.2 billion people across the world and 24,000 people die from hunger and hunger-related disease every day. Is America, "land of the free," indeed free enough from the prejudice of idealism to see beyond its own democratic model and be willing to accept nations and peoples according to their own way of life? Is America, citadel of higher education, in fact ingenious enough to engage the minds of our best thinkers – business, political, social, and religious – to address the underlying reasons that spawn terrorist acts, and to require that our government accommodate their advice into political action? Will America, "land of opportunity," grasp the opportunity to lead the world, by example, into peaceful coexistence rather than increasing revengeful feelings in one more area of the world?

The American Will

America has the resources and the will necessary to address this problem in a constructive way. Of course, this way needs to include the inhibition of terrorists wherever they may be found, but medical professionals know that to be treatment of effect and not of cause, providing only temporary amelioration of the wound. With the wrong treatment, diseases do not heal, but worsen.

At the heart of the current crisis is the Palestinian problem, and that problem must be solved, and soon. Israel was created as a Jewish state by the United Nations following World War II, but in attempting to redress an atrocity of the past, another was created in its wake. The effects of this situation extend beyond the Middle East to afflict an entire planet.

The nations of the world must unite to resolve this conflict and achieve peace for the sake of a people on both sides who desperately want peace. This is no longer an Israeli-Palestinian problem or a Jewish-Muslim problem, but a world problem, and both sides need broad spectrum help. To do otherwise will perpetuate the climate in which hate continues to percolate throughout the Middle East and beyond.

An Act of Grace

Afghanistan, a country already in rubble from decades of conflict, has become a harbor for terrorist groups. It should be rebuilt in the enlightened interest of peace, as was done with Western Europe after World War II.

History has shown that the punishing terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1920 created a hotbed of animosity and resentment across Germany that produced the Nazi movement, the Holocaust and World War II. The countries comprising the Allied Forces in that war know that the people of the Axis Powers were not "evil" but misguided, including the many soldiers involved in suicide missions. Today, these countries take their place among America's closest friends.

The current crisis presents a challenge to America that goes beyond previous conflicts. America can now choose to implement a new model for easing tension throughout the world in times of crisis. We've done it before.

Some German people have a saying: "The Marshall Plan was not justice. It was pure grace." While the Western alliance could have punished Germany for that war, it rebuilt it instead. And The Marshall Plan worked, not only to save lives, but also to keep those defeated from turning to political dictatorships in the rubble of their countries and depleted economies.

By rebuilding Afghanistan, America would serve to remove the cause of despair and hatred among the diverse peoples in that region. America can afford to do this. It will not only save human lives, but be considerably less expensive than a military effort. Like the Marshall Plan, it will prove a triumph for procuring peace through sharing and understanding.

(Note: The names appearing in this article have been changed to respect privacy.)

Reprinted from Share International, Vol 20, No. 9, November 2001. Contact http://www.shareintl.orgor Tara Center, PO Box 6001, N. Hollywood, CA 91603. Copyright ©2001, New Times Press