Losing our innocence: gaining understanding

While the world waits to see if there is a direct American military response in Afghanistan to the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, many of us realize that our way of life has been irrevocably altered by the events of that day. Are civil liberties at risk? What, as a society, are we Canadians prepared to accept in the light of September 11?

Everyone I’ve spoken to shares a sense of loss of innocence. We’ve been fortunate, here on this continent because we have never experienced an a successful, international terrorist attack of this scope here in North America. We have not experienced war here, either, for generations.

And thankfully, we are unaccustomed to innocent civilians being murdered en masse for reasons of political symbolism.

Yes, there was Oklahoma City. As the Washington Post noted, “On April 19, 1995, an explosion rocked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured hundreds more in the nation’s deadliest act of terrorism.”

That act, for which a 26-year old American army veteran named Timothy McVeigh was convicted and executed in Indiana on June 11 this year, seemed to be the worst act of terror we could imagine.

To me, it was particularly horrific specifically because the innocents were killed by an American whose conscience somehow permitted him to murder his fellow citizens. His attack was unspeakably symbolic. And, Timothy McVeigh never wavered in his self-righteousness; he never regretted his act.

When I cast my mind back to that April day six years ago, I recall how Americans immediately suspected international terrorists of the bombing. Surely, Americans thought, it couldn’t be one of our own.

But Timothy was one of their own. Timothy McVeigh sent collective shivers down most of our spines precisely because he was “one of us.” Whether American or Canadian, it doesn’t really matter, does it? What mattered — and still matters — is that he was born and bred here in North America. That he could perpetrate such a crime against his own people creates a specially pungent fear throughout a society. Being a traitor remains one of the most unforgivable acts in a society.

Collectively, we never want to feel that it is “one of us” who is culpable… or remotely capable… of evil.

The suicide attacks of September 11 goes beyond the insidious threat of the Timothy McVeighs of the world. It adds a new twist to terrorism in our midst: This time, the terrorists were immigrants who we accepted onto our shores, newcomers who were trained by our own experts — and who have invisibly integrated into our culture.

And so we lose our innocence. And so we wonder about our immigration policies, screening mechanisms. And, in the USA today, there is open speculation over whether or not the Olympics, due in Salt Lake City this winter, should be cancelled.

But in losing that innocence, we must work hard, extremely hard, here in North America not to forget our acceptance of others. We must endeavors to continue to trust, to continue to keep our hearts and minds open to different cultures, religions, and philosophies.

So far, President Bush still plans to go to the Olympics. As a gathering of nations, it’s a symbol of how we want the world and its peoples to work.

But we must not be naïve.

While in Bermuda, I was appalled at CNN’s female newscaster who gushed, “But why do they [the terrorists] hate us?”

The quick and honest response from the heart is that no people, of any nation, civilian or military, deserve to die like this.

But the equally quick response is that like it or not, Americans have perpetrated attacks on other peoples, including civilians. And the fact of the matter is that countries which have suffered in this way will be full of ordinary people like you and like me who have been killed, mutilated or whose lives have been otherwise destroyed by the horror that military attacks engender.

American missiles have slammed into Palestinian homes. American dollars (to the tune of US $40 million) have supported the Taliban, the group suspected of this September 11 terrorist attack under the leadership of Ossamin bin Laden. American money, politics and weaponry have supported Israel against the Palestinians. And our Canadian politicians have supported such American involvement abroad.

Ask yourself: How do children orphaned by American bombs and missiles feel about the United States?

Perhaps we should all recognize that because it is the most powerful country in the world, that America — and all North Americans by associations — are hated and resented by many others.

So, did we need this terrorist “wake-up call” from innocence?

I would never, ever claim we did.

But we must give pause to our actions, collective and individual. We must reflect on the leaders we elect, the social philosophy we espouse, the laws we believe in and seek to uphold — and that we teach our children. We must not forget the repercussions of oppression of any kind.

Where will the repercussions of September 11 take North Americans, Canadians, Pontiac residents both collectively and individually?

I’m not the one to say. We all are. What do you think?


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Quyon, Québec. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com