REVENGE, RETALIATION AND COLLECTIVE GUILT

By JOANNE MARINER

Monday, Sep. 17, 2001

Even as the ruins of the World Trade Center still smolder, Americans are bracing themselves for further violence. While television news coverage, the unflagging Greek chorus of this tragedy, has substituted the rubric of "America's New War" for "Attack on America," the national consensus for military action has been building.

Although the enemy is indistinct, America's new war has already been declared. President Bush, in remarks on Sunday, put it bluntly: "We're at war. There's been an act of war declared upon America by terrorists, and we will respond accordingly."

How this combat will be waged — by what methods, and according to what rules — is the unanswered question. There is no doubt that the United States must punish those responsible for the terrible crimes committed on its soil. But it is equally important to ensure that our response to this bloodshed bears no resemblance to the crimes themselves.

Collective Guilt

In its callous disregard of individual innocence, terrorism's logic is that of collective guilt and indiscriminate slaughter. The people who crowded the floors of the World Trade Center were not, from the terrorists' perspective, thousands of individuals with individual lives, but instead a single target of hatred.

Some commentators and members of the public, calling for revenge, have echoed such thinking. Impelled by a visceral need to retaliate against the murderers of thousands, they seem willing to accept indiscriminate civilian casualties — as long as those casualties are suffered abroad, not here.

Worse, some angry people have ignored the crucial difference between those who commit atrocities and those who simply share the killers' religious beliefs, ethnicity or national origin. Blaming Arabs or Muslims in general, they relegate entire populations to the enemy's ranks.

The challenge now facing the United States is not to allow such attitudes to infect either our foreign or domestic policies. How we choose to react to these events must be consonant with our country's core values. We cannot accept the very concepts that those who attacked us embraced: collective guilt, religious and ethnic hostility, and the belief in a clear and unyielding distinction between our friends and our enemies.

Innocent Victims

Walking near the financial district in the immediate aftermath of the buildings' collapse, I came upon a Sikh analyst who had just fled the South Tower. He had been working on the 61st floor when the first plane hit, and had made it down the stairs to the 38th floor when the second plane slammed into his building, some fifty floors above. As he told his story, I worried about him, and not because of what he had escaped. Because of his dark skin and his carefully wrapped turban, I feared he might evoke the wrong reaction in an upset crowd.

By that evening, such concerns seemed justified. A group of men stood in front of a local bodega as one described seeing a young Arab man attacked that day in Harlem. "He was beaten to a bloody pulp," said the eyewitness, with evident satisfaction.

Unity amidst Diversity

New Yorkers have only to think of the World Trade Center itself to be struck by the ugliness and stupidity of such actions.

For some, the twin towers symbolized the financial world and the power of the United States. But people who live in New York saw them in both more practical and more emotional terms.

Most of the time they served as a sort of giant compass in the sky, a handy and immediate way to orient oneself on the city's north-south grid. Yet their massive presence also signified the city itself. Glimpsed during those endless cab rides back from Newark airport, the towers loomed over New Jersey, as if mocking the neighboring state's flatness, its dreary landscape, its lack of urbanity. They shouted: THIS IS NEW YORK.

The New York that the towers advertised so boldly is, it bears emphasizing, an international city. Indeed, the list of those believed to be in the wreckage of World Trade Center attests to the city's diversity.

Today's New York Times describes an Albanian-American window washer, a Dominican-American security guard, and an Ecuadorian-American elevator operator, examples of the many immigrants now missing. Whatever the exact numbers, there were, no doubt, citizens of scores of other countries killed in last week's attack.

New York, these past days, is still New York, even if its skyline has changed, its streets are filled with rescue vehicles, and its people are uncharacteristically polite. Visitors may recognize the city by its skyscrapers, but they also know they're in New York because their taxi driver is Pakistani (or Haitian, or Bangladeshi, or from one of a dozen other places). That is part of the city's greatness, and the nation's.


Joanne Mariner is deputy director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. She lives and works in New York City. The views expressed in her column are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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