Sept. 11: Lessons learned

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Here are the remarks made by Dr. John J. Moll Jr., a surgeon who resides in Jackson, at the Sept. 11 memorial service at Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau.

We have memorials for different reasons. There are events that are too wonderful and exciting to ever forget. However, we also designate memorial days to help us remember things that, though we wish to forget, ought not to be forgotten. In times of peace and quiet, it is very much part of human nature to assume that things have always been as they are now.

It is proper and important to remember the victims, heroes and villains of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Sept. 11 was not a triumphant day for the United States, although we can look with a great deal of collective pride at individual acts of heroism that were demonstrated by our fellow citizens.

Most importantly, because the lessons learned on 9/11 still apply today, it is critical that we not forget, even if the act of remembering is unpleasant.

The meaning we attach to certain events is strongly affected by our experiences. To give you my background, I received my commission in the United States Navy in 1999. On Sept. 11, 2002, I started my active-duty career by flying onto the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. I was stationed on board the Truman during the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. My Navy career took me to Haiti in 2004 with the Marines on a peacekeeping mission that turned into a disaster relief effort. In 2005 I went to Iraq, again with the Marines, as a trauma surgeon in a forward surgical unit.

Because of this, when I reflect on the themes of peace and community with respect to the events of 9/11 I speak as a military man, one who has gone to war for his country. My experience of war continues to deeply affect my perceptions of the world around me. Therefore, how I interpret the events of 9/11 is different -- possibly quite different -- from someone who has not shared the same circumstances.

9/11 taught me or reminded me of several important lessons about the nature of peace. The first thing I learned about peace is that there is such a thing as false peace. This happens when you are really in a fight but choose not to acknowledge it. I see this in medicine, when a patient will present with some terrible problem that he has neglected until it can no longer be ignored. For America, we realized after 9/11 that we had been at war for years but had failed to recognize it. This was spelled out in agonizing detail -- after the fact -- in the 9/11 Commission Report. Consider some places, dates and numbers:

* The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988; 270 dead.

* The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; 6 killed, 1,042 injured.

* The bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996; 29 killed, 372 injured.

* The bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; 223 killed, 4,000 injured.

* The suicide bomb attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000; 17 killed, 39 injured.

Speaking after 9/11, CIA director George Tenet said, "The system was blinking red." Al-Qaida had already declared war on us, but for a variety of reasons we chose not to believe it. We thought that although al-Qaida was breathing out murderous threats against us, somehow they couldn't be serious. This disbelief in al-Qaida's intent allowed us to maintain the illusion of peace, but it was just that: an illusion, a false peace.

My background has also colored my understanding of how peace is established. I know many people think of peace as a condition of being, perhaps the natural state for human beings. I disagree. Left to ourselves, the tendency is for people to drift into conflict. I see peace as a process. It takes work to both bring about peace and to maintain it. That's why police talk about "keeping the peace."

As strange as it seems to say, the tools that the military use to bring about peace include violence and killing. So, a significant segment of my life has involved an immense paradox: I worked in support of the Navy and Marines in their effort to use their skills -- including violence -- to bring about peace.

How does that exchange work? How can anyone have the arrogance to say that ending the earthly life of another human being can advance the cause of peace? You had better be absolutely sure of the righteousness of your cause and the reasoning you use to reach that conclusion, because someday you will have to stand before God Almighty and defend yourself to him in this matter.

The sad reality is that resisting evil does sometimes require the application of deadly force. This is easy to think about when considering individuals. It becomes much more complex when considering cultures and nations. However, at the end of all the theorizing I am left with the conclusion that war, as terrible as it is, sometimes represents the lesser of two evils. As crazy as it sounds, establishing peace sometimes requires war.

The next lesson about peace that was reinforced on 9/11 is that peace requires an agreement between both parties. And sometimes the people on the opposite side aren't looking for peace. This can be hard to accept, particularly when you know you are acting out of good will. This can lead to the false assumption that all conflict arises from a misunderstanding. If only our enemies knew us better (so the thinking goes) there would be no reason for them to try to harm us.

However, the engineers and perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks have often lived and worked in the country they targeted for years beforehand. They fully understood the people and the countries they attacked. The leaders of the 9/11 attacks spent a year or more planning the attacks, immersed in U.S. life and culture. The suicide bombers of the 7/7 London subway attacks were all long-term residents of Great Britain. Two of the main leaders of the 2004 Madrid train bombings were members of an al-Qaida cell that had been living in Spain since the mid-1990s. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, was American-born to Jordanian immigrants. Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the attempted Times Square bombing, is a Pakistani-American who has lived in the United States for over 12 years. Anwar al-Awlaki is a radical, pro-terrorist imam who has a lively Internet presence and has been described as a spiritual mentor to the both Hasan and Shahzad. Do you know where he was born? Las Cruces, N.M.

The problem is emphatically not that the terrorists are unfamiliar with our culture. On the contrary, they may know us too well. The problem is that they desire to hold sway over the world and are willing to use the techniques of terror to bring this about.

Finally, the events of 9/11 have made me increasingly aware that our notion of peace needs to be more comprehensive. "Peace" in English-speaking countries often means simply the absence of conflict. However, the absence of conflict is an inadequate goal. There are many countries in the world where there is little conflict, but this is because they are run by tyrants. They may be peaceful places, but they are not places you would choose to live. The real goal for us should be peace combined with justice.

Better is the idea contained by the Hebrew world "shalom" and the Arabic word "salaam." These represent not only a lack of conflict, but a holistic, comprehensive state of well-being: physical, emotional, spiritual.

The surprising thing is that you can experience "salaam" even while in the middle of war. If you are confident of the righteousness of your cause and comfortable with your place in it, you can achieve personal peace despite outward circumstances. There were times during my tour in Iraq when I would be in the OR working on a patient with rockets falling around us. I experienced fear, but a peacefulness that came from the feeling that I was precisely where I was supposed to be doing precisely what I was supposed to be doing for precisely the right reason. The Bible, in a different context, talks about a "peace that passes understanding." This isn't far from what I'm talking about.

Memorials like today are good and valuable if we use them to remind ourselves of the lessons we learned and strengthen the convictions we felt on 9/11. Otherwise, it will degrade into mere sentimentalism as time passes. We must continue to work for peace, but peace with justice. "Remember 9/11" is not the cry of a country just nursing old wounds. Rather, it is a reminder of all the things we learned or were reminded of that day: the viciousness of our enemies, the courage of our fellow citizens, the strength of our institutions, and most of all the tremendous power we wield because of our belief in the justice and rightness of our nation's fundamental principles.

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