A choice of 9/11s

Whatever else may be beyond our control, we are all free to choose which 9/11 moves us most deeply
Rajni Bakshi
10 September 2010

It may well be the oddest date in history.

However much they dominate our present, the human missiles of 2001 don’t have a unique claim on 9/11.

It was on September 11, 1906, that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi first articulated the concept of ‘satyagraha’, non-violent resistance, at a public meeting in South Africa. His rigorous application of this philosophy over the next 40 years earned Gandhi the title of Mahatma – great soul. It also gave the modern world a powerful new political tool for dealing with conflict and hurt.   

It was on September 11, 1893 that an Indian monk, Swami Vivekananda, was overwhelmed by a three minute standing ovation at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Reverberations of his appeal for universal brotherhood persist today beside the buzz of protest and counter-protest over Park51. 

It was on September 11, 1609 that Henry Hudson became the first European to set foot on an island which natives called ‘Menatay’ – our present day Manhattan. Hudson’s landing, somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Ground Zero, was a precursor to European settlements and mass death of native populations.

A collage of all four 9/11s can potentially serve as a map quest – showing us different pathways to resolving the tussle between co-existence and conflict, faith and reason.

Reflecting on this combination of stories is one possible way of picking our way through the tangled web of complications triggered by the plans for a mosque at 51 Park Place in Lower Manhattan.  

Let us begin with the most distant 9/11, Hudson’s landing, which was celebrated last year as the 400th birthday of New York city.

New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement established in the wake of Hudson’s first contact, is remembered as a multi-cultural, liberal enterprise based on respect for diversity and tolerance. Henry Hudson 400 Foundation, a joint venture of public and private institutions, was founded in 2006 to honor Manhattan, rather than Plymouth Rock, as the place where America and all that it represents actually began.

This narrative track can be trashed for glossing over the fact that the seventeenth century settlement had only a brief period of bonhomie with native tribes. By 1625 the Dutch began construction of Fort Amsterdam – as a defense against angry natives as well as British and French competitors. Within half a century of Hudson’s landing much of the native population had been wiped out by European guns and germs. Those who survived retreated inland.

Can this history become a justification for imputing unredeemable guilt, across centuries, to an entire race? In that case all European descent Americans would be cast in the role of murderous interlopers. Certainly, this is a dead-end track – not just morally untenable but also anti-life.

Even bitter opponents of the would-be mosque at Park51 would agree with this. Most reports indicate that they are not asking Muslims across the world to carry a permanent, collective, guilt for 9/11, 2001.

The angst over Park51 is about the lingering emotional ravages of a particular event and how they imbue a particular place with meaning.

But opposing a mosque at Park51 because it is too close to the tragic, humiliation- recalling, Ground Zero raises an awkward question. What is the radius of Ground Zero’s sanctity zone – one mile, ten miles, a thousand miles? And is there an irreconcilable conflict between faith and reason underlying this question?

This is what makes the 9/11 of 1893 fascinatingly pertinent to contemporary conundrums. The World Parliament of Religions was a uniquely American endeavor -- grounded in a celebration of reason as a basis for multi-faith dialogue and confidence in the dawn of an American Century. 

Swami Vivekananda ’s speech on that day began with the simple words “Sisters and Brothers of America” and proceeded to declare that sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism are outdated phenomena.  This is why he tends to be somewhat simplistically deployed as a poster-boy of multi-cultural camaraderie. But the relevance of the Swami’s 9/11 does not depend on such rudimentary political correctness.

Born into an affluent lawyer’s family in Calcutta, Vivekananda grew up amid an emerging Indian middle class that was simultaneously fascinated by the West and resentful of the indignities of colonial rule. As a disciple of the mystical seer Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Vivekananda processed and resolved these conflicting emotions.

He travelled to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, at the age of 30, not so much as a Hindu missionary, but the bearer of what he experienced as a universal non-sectarian truth.

Vivekananda realized that all spiritual striving is beyond reason, but reason is the only way to get there. For reason is the greatest gift of human existence. 

Even institutionalized religions, Vivekananda told the Parliament at Chicago, are nothing but “different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight” to the same goal.

That goal is God-realization or self-realization – the two being one and the same thing.

Over the next decade, till he died at the age of 39, Vivekananda travelled across the USA and western Europe engaged in dialogue about racial and religious conflict.  He left behind a body of work that attempts to recalibrate the dynamic between conquest, reparation and reconciliation.

However, it was Gandhi who forged a political tool by tapping into similar insights. Born into a merchant family in Western India, Gandhi trained as a barrister in London and later set up a practice in South Africa where he experienced humiliating racial discrimination.

On 9/11, 1906 Gandhi found himself in a leadership role at a gathering of Indians of all faiths, castes and professions at the Imperial Theatre in Johannesburg.  In an atmosphere charged with anger and the determination to fight racism, Gandhi dropped an idea that acted like a depth charge. Let us fight discriminatory laws by refusing to comply – by offering unflinching non-violent resistance.

His logic was impeccable. Truth is God and God is love. It follows that a struggle for justice cannot involve hurting one’s opponent. Instead, the ‘other’ in a conflict must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. In turn, this means cultivating the willingness to examine ‘truth’ in all its many dimensions. This can only be done by being strong – not physical strength but the strength of truth-force or love-force.

“Acts of violence create bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers” wrote Gandhi’s biographer, the American journalist, Louis Fischer. “Satyagraha aims to exalt both sides.”

At first glance this may seem like an impossibly lofty vantage point from which to view the angst over Park51. But is it really?

Attitude, rather than altitude, is critical for creative answers to this question.

It might help to shift the focus, momentarily, from Park51 to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House built on the site where Fort Amsterdam once stood. This grand, artistically carved, stone building at 1 Bowling Street is also a couple of blocks from Ground Zero.  Completed in 1907 it now houses the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Depending on which attitude comes naturally to you the exhibits within can be seen in sharply contradictory ways. If you believe that past hurts must be nursed indefinitely then the museum can be condemned as white man’s hypocrisy. Others may experience the same exhibits as an acknowledgement of past wrongs, of honoring the defeated and even a subtle attempt at reparation.  

Of course the immediacy of the WTC 9/11 hurt is so overpowering that it would be offensive to imply that there can be any parallel with damages triggered by Hudson’s 9/11.

What is common, and unchanging, is the challenge of seeking a universal basis for fairness – as well as the striving to anchor emotions and faith in reason.

This collage of 9/11s throws a comforting light on the present for those who feel strengthened by the long lineage of their efforts.

Chicago’s World Parliament of Religions was an ambitious, vastly successful, project of Americans who wished to celebrate diversity and co-existence. It was dismissed as an absurdity by some Christian leaders, who argued that since Christianity is the only real faith there is no basis for such a gathering.

On the evening of September 10, a coalition of civic groups called ‘New York Neighbors for American Values’ plans to hold a candle lit vigil in defense of ‘equality, diversity and religious freedom’. They will gather at 51 Park Place to support the proposed Muslim community centre, which has the declared purpose of upholding “respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people.”

Those who are bitterly opposed to the mosque, which will be part of this community centre, have already marched many times and will be back on the upcoming 9/11 as well. Seems like a rather standard conservative vs. liberal stand-off, right? Not quite.

The presence of those who lost loved-ones in the WTC attack, among supporters of the Park51 project, implies a ‘satyagrahi’ striving – which is not quite the same as just another political ‘camp’. Some of the same people have joined the Washington D.C. based Peace Alliance and are lobbying for a Congressional act that would create a Department of Peace.

Each of these 9/11s illuminates a crossroad. Together these various events compel us to ponder if civilization is indeed captive to historical events. Gandhi was utterly confident that the greatest assertion of liberty is to cultivate command over one’s own emotions. This frees us from being captive either to past hurt or guilt.

Whatever else may be beyond our control, we are all free to choose which 9/11 moves us most deeply.

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