I was in the Middle East training local SEALs when one of the boys called us all to the TV lounge because a plane had just struck the first of the Twin Towers. Thus it was that, despite being on the other side of the planet, we watched in real time as the second plane hit at 9:03, Eastern Standard Time.
Ten years later, in honor of all those innocent lives lost in a flash, and all those lost in this decade worldwide, I offer chapter 1. There is no easy solution to the terrible conflict raging behind the curtain that could result in such a nightmare…but when we recognize that we have options we make a start.
Hate September 11, 2001
Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls;
the most massive characters are seared with scars.
- Khalil Gibran
My American SEAL platoon and our Arab SEAL hosts watched in living color on satellite television as the second plane dissolved into the second of the Twin Towers. It was approaching evening where we were, several months into a deployment to the Persian Gulf. We sat frozen, burning in silent rage, staring as almost twenty deluded murderers exploited the most advanced technology to carry out the most primitive evil. Having slashed women to death with razor knives, these “men” committed suicide and in the process proved they were brave enough and strong enough to kill thousands of innocents to include unsuspecting office workers, little old ladies, and infants.
They called themselves “warriors.”
We were all naval commandos in that room. Some were American, and some were the “local nationals” we had been sent to train. As only one of the painfully ironic and poignant facts of that unique evening, we were teaching our hosts skills that would make them better at killing terrorists. Yet not one of us could lift a finger to prevent what was happening in the United States.
Though we sat all together in that remote Middle Eastern barracks, each was very much alone with his thoughts. The Americans thought of loved ones and Teammates a world away. My Arab friends thought of…well, I hope to one day share another cup of tea and ask them. As you may imagine, things got a little busy during the days that followed. Within weeks, I would be on a reconnaissance mission, charting an isolated beach for the U.S. Marine Corps invasion of Afghanistan.
Almost twenty Arabs and Americans, living together. Almost twenty Arabs, dying together on the dispersed team of terrorist hijackers. If those cowardly bastards had instead chosen to face our little international group, man to man, 9/11 would have turned out very differently. For one thing, they wouldn’t have had to work so hard to make their way down to hell. At our hands, hell would have come unstoppably roaring up to them.
And three thousand gentle, innocent souls would still be alive with their families.
No one spoke for hours during the spectacle. If one of the local SEALs had laughed or expressed any satisfaction in what we were witnessing, I believe I would have killed him on the spot. This is not a boast. It’s a confession, a shameful admission. I’m very ashamed it’s true. These were my friends, but we were so choked with hurt; we were so thirsty for revenge.
Here was a bitterly painful sense of helplessness, for some of the most dangerous men on earth. We were supposed to be the protectors of our countrymen. Each December Seventh at the SEAL Team in Hawaii, in fact, we would swam the five miles around Pearl Harbor’s Ford Island. Commemorating the original Day of Infamy in 1941, this ceremony sent the message that hostile actors were welcome to attack again if they wished…we would be ready this time.
Instead, we were on the wrong side of the planet.
We were supposed to be the ones who would sacrifice all so fellow citizens could sleep safe in their beds at night. Yet we would sleep through this night with troubled dreams, safe in our own beds, while thousands of innocents under our protection suffered and died in a crushing, inescapable nightmare.
On top of everything else, within our platoon I had the unique awareness that only two Tuesdays earlier, my wife and children had flown from Boston to California, as a plane I had just seen disintegrate had been supposed to do. Later, she would tell me a strange detail. During the early part of their August 28th flight, a man of apparent Middle Eastern descent had been roaming the cabin and studying the passenger seating, crew stations, wings and more. He had been carrying an Arabic language newspaper. My wife wrote it off as unreasonable suspicion on her part, but she remained troubled that he had been so intent in his survey of the airplane. It might have been a coincidence.
Do I have a personal understanding of hatred? Yes, I do. That’s the first thing I want you to understand.
Unlike my loved ones sobbing through a tortured morning rush hour in the United States, I watched it sitting among Arab friends and allies, highly trained commandos – some of whom may have empathized with the grievances of the al Qaeda terrorists piloting those improvised cruise missiles.
If that last statement strains your comfort level, I’m satisfied. Peacemaking is not the fluffy stuff of rainbows and unicorns. It is not the exclusive domain of well-intentioned activists shouting “Ban War!” Without justified war, Hitler may have completed his quest and destroyed millions more. Genuine conflict reduction requires the capacity and willingness to strike, combined with a determined restraint and the guts to stare straight into the face of hate…and then choose a reasoned response.
Yes, some of my friends did (and do) empathize with the grievances al Qaeda uses to justify hijacking airplanes. Note the careful use of this phrase “empathized with the grievances.” I know none of our Arab partners in that host platoon were radicalized terrorists. If one had been, he would certainly have exploited our trust to kill some or all of us. The symbolic value of slaughtering a few American SEALs while we slept would have been irresistible. As demonstrated by the 9/11 hijackers, even sacrificing his life would have been acceptable to an extremist with an opportunity.
Empathy, however, is easy to understand, if we have the courage to consider the Other’s reality.
Here’s one poorly-hidden elephant in the room: In many of the countries I’ve visited around the Middle East, the horror of Palestinian children killed in Israeli attacks is advertised widely and discussed passionately. For Israelis, on the other hand, the constant threat of devastating Palestinian rocket and suicide bomber attacks is a deep and chronic pain that can make reasoned negotiation seem unreasonable. Neither side will run out of iron-clad reasons to avenge. Nor will either side ever accept its own marginalization or elimination, so all the struggle and rhetoric in pursuit of dominance for either extreme can only serve to prolong the suffering of innocents within both populations.
Many participants can sense this. Isn’t it time many more admitted it? Isn’t it time both parties, with their thoughts on their children, stared straight into the face of hate and said Enough?
In another part of the world, in another abscess of raging human conflict, actor Don Cheadle and activist John Prendergast have done exactly that. You’ll read about their “Enough” movement and book, The Enough Moment, in chapter 25.
Only the absolute cessation of violence provides space to work through underlying issues in pursuit of the stability and reconciliation that can benefit both. Yet all too often, hatred is so intense that a participant can come to prefer personal suffering over personal peace if that is the price required to hurt the adversary.
Until squabbling siblings, barroom brawlers or aggressing armies establish at least a cold truce, until the participants can “cause a pause,” the retaliatory cycle of violence continues to escalate and solutions fly ever further from reality.
The solution lies only between the extremes. Only here can balance – and peace for those under your care – be found.