Insight is often found in moments we don’t anticipate. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 has occasioned volumes of commentary and analysis, searching for meaning about that terrible day and the ten years of war and conflict that have followed. But the most compelling idea that I have yet found came out of an unexpected conversation I had during a business lunch a few months ago.
The lunch was a meeting in downtown Washington, DC, with a media organization that was interested in a film my company had produced on Muslim public opinion. Through our introductory small talk, I learned that my lunch companion was herself Muslim and originally from Bosnia, which she had left during the war there.
For most of the lunch, we talked about my film, Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. She was particularly fascinated – and a little dismayed – to learn that many people doubted the finding that showed that the vast majority of Muslims wanted to live under democracies. I opined that the source of this disbelief – owing in large part to the 9/11 attacks – was the trope that Muslims hated democracy and freedom. Such stereotyping was human nature.
That led to her telling me a little more about her harrowing experiences during the war in Bosnia, and how her family was forced to abandon all they owned. Forgetting my own criticisms of knee-jerk generalizations a few minutes earlier, I asked her if it was “the Serbs” who took her home.
She was thoughtful for a moment and then answered, no, not the “Serbs.” It was a particular man. He was a Serbian, she explained, but he was an individual. He had a name and it was him alone, and not an entire people, who had injured her.
As she continued to talk, it occurred to me that of the many things that have been said about 9/11, very little has been devoted to the identities of the 19 men who carried out those acts. We remember Osama Bin Laden, but the actual perpetrators of the attacks had names too. They had individual biographies and differing motivations for joining the plot. Some were religious and some apparently less so. Some had distinct political motivations and some acted out of personal allegiance to the cult of Bin Laden. Yet so much of the discourse following that event has been framed in such broad terms as the “Muslim world”, the West, Arabs, Islam and the Clash of Civilisations, as though these were the perpetrators and the victims of those criminal acts.
I imagine that those 19 men were thinking in such terms when they set out to perpetrate mass murder on 11 September. They couldn’t have been considering the individual identities of the people they were about to kill when they aimed those planes at the buildings.
Anders Behring Breivik, the man who massacred 77 people in Norway this summer was certainly thinking in those terms. He clearly stated in his manifesto that he was trying to save Western civilization by his actions. How else could he indiscriminately shoot children at a summer camp? And civilization was also what certain Serbian leaders cited when they ordered the mass killings of Muslim men and boys in Bosnia. Such acts are enough to make one skeptical of any pretence about all high-minded ideals.
But as my lunch companion talked further, it became clear that the reason she didn’t blame an entire people for the actions of a few was precisely because of her faith. A big part of Islam’s moral message is about individual responsibility. Simply put, no one should hold innocents guilty for the crimes of others. And that’s what was guiding her. Western civilization’s emphasis on individualism asserts the same imperative.
So here is my personal lesson about 9/11: religion and civilization are meant to lift us above human nature, yet they are not immune from it. Many crimes are committed in their names. Therefore, it takes others to rescue those values and proclaim them again, or at least witness them quietly in one’s own heart, and perhaps share them in an unexpected way.
Each of us has to decide.
(Alexander Kronemer is a documentary filmmaker and writer living in Washington, DC. This article is part of a series marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11 written for the Common Ground News Service).