20 years on — who can forget?

I did not post on this yesterday because, as I said, it was actually on the morning of 12 September 2001 (our time) that the news came through. I first heard it on my clock radio, then got out of bed and turned on the TV… The first attack had occurred at 1am our time.

I have recovered, thanks to the Wayback Machine, my blogs (originally on Angelfire) for September and October 2001. Some extracts follow. Links all work.

2001

27 Oct 2001

From The Sydney Morning Herald…food for thought, nice memories and a bonus replay

Hugh Mackay is a regular columnist in the Saturday Herald. I am often in sympathy with what he says, and today’s column is such a case. He articulates much of my own unease in the current climate, with the world as it is and an election coming up here. You may not agree, but still, read it carefully.

– OPINION

BEWARE OF WARMONGERS AND LIES TOO EASILY TOLD

By Hugh Mackay

It is an extraordinary thought that a federal election campaign in a country like Australia – remote, peaceful, tolerant (though decreasingly so), hospitable (though decreasingly so), safe, secure and prosperous – could be hijacked by hatred and fear.

Even more extraordinary is the possibility that an unpopular, divisive, high-taxing government could be returned with an increased majority, mainly because voters were freaked by their fear.

Fear is a complex emotion but it comes in two main forms. There’s “anticipatory fear” where we perceive a threat, know what to do about it and take the necessary evasive action. That happens when you see a dangerous situation looming on the road, or someone threatens you with violence, or you face a difficult challenge like an exam, or a job interview. Anticipatory fear can usually be discharged quickly. We act, and we feel better.

Then there’s “inhibitory fear” where the threat is too great, too amorphous or too appalling for us to know how to deal with it. Because there’s no way discharge the fear through action, we are inhibited rather than energised. The term “paralysed by fear” is a good description of inhibitory fear at work.

The fear generated by terrorism is of that kind. It’s too huge and yet too vague a threat to be dealt with rationally. It comes from shadowy, uncertain sources. It has the potential to pop up in unexpected places and unpredictable ways.

So governments (including our own) try to manage it by reacting as if this is a conventional military threat to which they can respond in conventional military ways. We’re supposed to be hunting Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind behind the attacks on the US, but, in effect, we have declared war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. We keep saying this is not like any other war, yet our leaders are approaching it as if it is precisely like any other war … right down to the disturbingly jolly television coverage of politicians joshing with the troops they are consigning to battle.

It’s no wonder we are afraid and unfocused in our fear. We’re jumpy about everything because we can’t quite get a handle on what is going on, what will happen next, or even what should happen next. (If the ground forces capture bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cronies, is that it? Do the troops arrest them, turn them over to “the authorities”, and then go home?)

It would be a tragedy for our democracy if the Australian electorate turned out to have been paralysed by fear at the very time when we were supposed to be pondering weighty questions about the character of our society and its future directions.

But it would also be a tragedy if we allowed the fear of terrorism – or even of refugees – to blind us to some other, more specific targets for equally legitimate fears. Let me offer you a few suggestions.

Be afraid of politicians who send us too easily to war.

Be afraid of those who, turning their backs on the entire history of our species, persist in the belief that killing each other solves anything.

Be afraid of those whose rhetoric is carefully designed to make it sound as if war is a noble thing and death in battle is glorious. The truth is very different: history says war is devastating for all concerned and the suffering of those who are killed or maimed, on both sides, is just like any other suffering. Their blood is like your blood; the mud and rubble and excrement in which they writhe are as filthy as any other; their families grieve with the same intensity as any other bereaved family.

Be afraid of those who present a complex truth as if it is simple. Be afraid of a propaganda war against bin Laden and the Taliban untempered by any acknowledgment that the US had encouraged and empowered the Taliban in Afghanistan when Russia was the enemy.

Be afraid of those who refuse, on the grounds of “patriotism”, to examine possible reasons for hostility to the US in certain parts of the world.

Be afraid of politicians prepared to exploit our baser instincts for political gain. Be afraid of the motives of a federal minister recklessly announcing that Australia now ranks third in the world as a terror target, as if our fears needed refuelling … and as if some terrorist had mailed him a hit list.

Be afraid of anyone who tries to justify enmity in the name of religion.

Above all, be afraid of the corrosive and paralysing effect of fear itself. If we allow it to dull the clarity of our focus on the local issues facing us in this election campaign, that will be a huge victory for terrorism.

* * *

14 Oct 2001

Sunday…and news so burdens the heart

The news is grim this morning. If indeed the recent cases of anthrax in the United States are part of the current terrorist program, let it be said at once that any God who tells someone to do such a thing cannot be God.

In a sweeping but in my view accurate generalisation referring to Old Testament prophets, fundamentalist Christians and the likes of Osama Bin Laden, Karen Armstrong in A History of God ascribes a clear link between belief in a highly personal God and attributing one’s own hatred, anger, resentment and other dark forces to the Almighty, thus legitimising them. One’s own welling resentments (or, in a somewhat more positive light, one’s sense of injustice) are projected heavenwards, so that they are no longer your feelings but the will of God. If you are charismatic enough to persuade other people that your anthropomorphic deity really feels as you do, you can then unleash very powerful forces onto the world. I really think there is something to this thesis.

Recently Mitchell told me he was reading the Old Testament for the first time, but was finding himself bogged down in the detailed laws of the Torah, the five books traditionally (and wrongly) ascribed to Moses. The detailed arguments on the origins of the five books of the Torah are well known and accepted by most Christian historians and scholars, and very many Jewish ones. The introductory matter to the Catholic Jerusalem Bible gives a moderately conservative but fair summary of the scholarly position: that the books reach back through oral tradition to the beginnings of Israel, but in the form we know them date from a time some 500 to 800 years after the Exodus. Only the most Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians deny this.

The books are important, however. There are gems within, and the Exodus has, as myth, inspired many an oppressed people, including African Americans in their struggle. Among the gems are laws which still govern our sense of what is just: “Do not deny justice to any poor man of yours in his lawsuit. Keep away from lies. Do not slay the innocent or the just, for I will not forgive the wicked. And do not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eye of the clearsighted and perverts the sentence of the just. Do not oppress a stranger; you know what it is to be a stranger, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.” (“Stranger” could well be translated as “refugee”.) —Exodus 23: 6-9 [Unless otherwise stated, I am using the rather good Christian Community Bible: Catholic Pastoral Edition, 2 ed, Claretian Publications, Quezon City (Philippines) 1988.]

There are of course laws that are blissfully ignored today: “If you lend money to any of my people who are poor, do not act like a moneylender and do not charge him interest.” Exodus 22: 24 Others, probably most, are ignored–thank God: “If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she profanes her father and shall be burned in the fire.” Leviticus 21: 9 “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.” Leviticus 20: 27 [1611 King James Version] And in the same chapter, verse 13, “If a man lieth with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” [KJV]

The last one has had a somewhat more enduring influence than the one just before it…

Here endeth the lesson.

10 Oct 2001

Poetry, a letter, and a dizzy old queen…in reverse order 😉

Yes, the dizziness was mine, and literal: I am having it checked out.

The letter was from Shanghai Bob, an ex-student, and is quoted below. It is a really nice letter…

Shanghai Bob’s Letter

Date: Tuesday, October 09, 2001 1:03 AM

Hi Mr W,

It has been a while since we last talked, I’ve been quite busy and believe that you are more busy than I am. However I’ve been reading your Ninglun Diary recently, first just wanted to have a glance but was attracted to your many insights on daily issues, and so read all your September and October diaries. (^_^)

On that terrorist issue, I totally agree with your views, especially on how we should not associate all Muslims to terrorists, just as we cannot call all Americans murderers by the act of Timothy McVeigh.. But sadly, many people (at least some of my friends) have adopted that thought, having very negative views on Muslims on the whole. And some of my atheist friends developed the idea that “if there wasn’t religion, the world would be at peace.” One very atheist friend even said, “religions are utterly stupid and evil, people should stop them.” Much of the world’s ill comes from a lack of empathy, understanding, compassion and respect for differences, and when this develops to a larger scale, it results in larger conflicts like violence and even war. But sadly, this ill is so rooted in every human being (ie. everyone, whether the person is Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc etc etc), that often we just turn out to hurt others without even realising it.

You also wrote that you are a religion seeker today. I remembered before that you told me you were a Buddhist, to what extent do you believe in Buddhism today? Recently, I too am very interested in the many religions of the world, and have searched the net to get to know some of them. My grandma is a Buddhist, so is my uncle and aunt, and so is Xiang. However their beliefs are quite different too. My grandma believes that chant the name of Buddha and scriptures can help bring peace, and good will be repayed for good. My uncle and aunt believe that only the actual practice of cultivation (by sit in meditation) will free people from the cycle of reincarnation, and open up the window of wisdom, and become Buddha after death. (a bit like Falun Gong, though they’re not Falun Gong.) Xiang believes in Tibetan Buddhism, and follows Dalai Lama as his living God. The religion of Buddhism has diverse denominations with its huge amount of scriptures and different doctrines. What is your personal belief in Buddhism? (^_^)

It’s also interesting to know that you were a Christian involved in an evangelical union when you were young. I guess I am likely to face similar problems in understanding the Bible. Many issues like homosexuality (I am not homosexual, but am far from homophobic), and the law of the Old Testament are the difficult areas. But I do trust the love of God, and the wisdom of life that the Bible teaches. I’ve also read articles about Christian Fundamentalism; it gives me the impression that it lacks humility, compassion, understanding and love, which are the essence of the Bible, for “God is love.” 1 John 4:8. Many Fundamentalists also tend to read the Bible out of context, and also tend to take metaphors literally. So these are some areas I will take note.

On whether the Bible is inspired by God or just made up by people, I do not know much. But what amazes me is the Bible’s many accurate prophesies, such as the ones in Isaiah about Christ the Messiah, how he came, how he lived, how he died, everything so specific and so accurate. It’s so accurate that many think it must be written after Jesus but claimed itself written earlier, but last century the Dead Sea scroll was found, and it was a manuscript of the book of Isaiah carbon dated almost 200 B.C. The Bible’s many scientific knowledge is also extraordinary. The Old Testament says that the earth is round and is held in mid space, written many centuries B.C. where people had no idea of what the earth looks like, (it was thought to be flat until only around 300 years ago). But anyway, whether it is really revelation by God or not, it is still an extraordinary and valuable book I think.

It was by reading your Ninglun website that my interests in these subjects are aroused, indeed you’re making a brilliant site! Please do keep up the good work!

Take care, keep in touch.

Your student as always,
Bob

Letter published with Bob’s permission.

2000
Class of 2000: L-R Xiang, Mitchell, me, Shanghai Bob, Zhaonan. 2021: Xiang is now a mathematician, Mitchell is a teacher, Bob is a doctor, and I think Zhaonan studied Engineering.

08 Oct 2001

The world in turmoil…but quiet in Surry Hills

I first heard about the attack on Kabul when I went for the morning paper and saw the special 4am edition of the Daily Telegraph. Well, I guess we all await developments.

I took my copy of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God with me as I set out for Cafe Max to have a quiet morning coffee. It is a calm and dispassionate account of the subject–no, not really dispassionate, as Armstrong clearly has a passion for the idea of God and its evolution in the three major Middle Eastern religions–Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She does also allude to other traditions, such as Buddhism, but her focus is on the diverse monotheistic “people of the Book(s)”.

chris_and_dim
Cafe Max – Madam and Dimmi 2003

I can’t help agreeing with A N Wilson, as cited on the cover: “This is the most fascinating and learned survey of the biggest wild goose chase in history.”

Why on earth have we come to two conclusions: 1) God is absolutely fascinated with the Middle East and 2) He talks to people and makes them write things? This book helps one understand how this came about. Armstrong does believe in God, by the way, but is chary of the idea of literal revelation. She certainly is learned and fairminded.

The book is worth it for a clearer and less hysterical take on Islam, just for starters…

23 Sep 2001

State of the world

On world affairs yesterday, and in the diary for the day before, I raised a few questions. Looking back, I realise how devastated I have been by the events that have unfolded since September 11. One symptom is how the time elapsed since then seems almost a blur, almost unreal. I think I am settling back now, but I still feel a deep apprehension. My unease, combined with the usual end-of-term stresses, may even have impinged on my personal relationships, I suspect: perhaps in the form of leaning on some too heavily as a respite from the gloom.

I recommend looking at this article in Asiaweek, which goes some way towards realism about the way the rest of the world might feel about how the United States responds to September 11. The Economist examines the questions “Who is to blame?” and “Why do they hate us?” rather well. This article is pretty close to what I think; however, I think, while agreeing that the motives of such crazy people may be hard to fathom, that the U.S, policy issues raised in that editorial may have more significance, at least in creating a climate for hatred. Finally, The Atlantic Monthly has some good background articles, one set of which is at the other end of that link.

Religion

I am reading The History of God by Karen Armstrong (a former nun), partly to background current issues, but also to review my knowledge of the Bible, religious history and so on. Illuminating on the three monotheisms–Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

We shall see that Yahweh did not remain the cruel and violent god of the Exodus, even though the myth has been important in all three of the monotheistic religions. Surprising as it may seem, the Israelites would transform him beyond recognition into a symbol of transcendence and compassion. Yet the bloody history of the Exodus would continue to inspire dangerous conceptions of the divine and a vengeful theology… The myth of a Chosen People and a divine election has often inspired a narrow, tribal theology from the time of the Deuteronomist right up to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism that is unhappily rife in our own day. Yet…In all three faiths, (God) has inspired an ideal of social justice, even though it has to be said that Jews, Christians and Muslims have often failed to live up to this ideal and have transformed him into the God of the status quo. [p.28-29]

Mitchell recently said that the religious are often the nicest people on campus, and he is right I suspect; I was in the Evangelical Union myself and like to think I was one of the nicest people on campus in my day 😉 Today I am a religious seeker as much as ever, I think; but I have seen through and beyond the simplifications and circular arguments (and self-satisfaction) of the “simple faith” that believes the Bible is the Word of God because it says it is; Christian theology then becomes a matter of ignoring the embarrassing bits in the Bible, ironing out or glossing over inconsistencies, and getting into more and more desperate trouble trying to sustain the unsustainable. And yet there is in the Bible a core that is absolutely wonderful.

Today I would recommend anyone interested in the Bible should of course read it. But they must learn to see it historically, not as a magic thing, a box of texts all of equal relevance. Guidance may be had from believers and unbelievers alike: David Marr, The High Price of Heaven (Sydney, Allen and Unwin 1999); Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (Penguin 1992); Bishop John Selby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (Harper 1991).

17 Sep 2001

An evil man

Much may (I think) rightly be said about the folly of American foreign policy, or its arrogance–and America has sometimes set a nasty hypocritical tone to an outsider like me: supporting corrupt and tyrannical regimes, engineering the downfall of governments they do not like (as in Chile), callously speaking military-talk about “collateral damage”, and so on. On the other hand, this is a country free enough to allow those thoughts to be expressed, as they are by many: Noam Chomsky to name one. Dissent is more viable in America than in most other nations. The world is paradoxical.

On the other hand, having just watched an excellent documentary on ABC (Australian that is) Four Corners on Osama bin Laden: oh my God! What an evil bastard that man is.

I find myself looking again at the model of a post-Cold War world given in Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996) and find it compelling and prescient. I still feel he draws the lines too starkly, and disagree with his proposed policies, except maybe to pull back from insisting on the “Westernisation” (as distinct from “modernisation”) of the rest of the world. Huntington also presents a very flawed view, a straw man view, of multiculturalism, something he does not understand in the way it has been understood in Australia for example. He does not give sufficient credence either to the fact that cultures actually can change, compromise and meet. In a sense he is agreeing with the extremists who so bedevil this world. Nonetheless, it is one of the best available models for making sense of what is occurring at this moment.

12 Sep 2001

Dies irae

Horrible. What more can I say?

When I was seventeen the following poem (I print here the first and last stanzas only) was one we did; ever since it has recurred to me when the world has displayed yet another atrocity:

SEPTEMBER 1 1939

W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

*

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleagured by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.

2021

Do visit The New York World Trade Centre attacks on 9/11 is a moment we must remember — Virginia Trioli. And here is a must read: 9/11 conspiracy theories debunked: 20 years later, engineering experts explain how the twin towers collapsed.