Tragedy demands careful thinking

In the spring of 1995, I was working in Washington, D.C. for Congressman Martin Sabo’s office. During the months that I worked there, one event stood out as a singularity, – the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh. Working in a Federal Office building during those days was a tense situation.

I spent a great deal of time thinking about that specific historical moment yesterday as I listened to various and sundry reports about the catastrophic destruction in the United States. While listening to the constant barrage of developments, I became increasingly angry. My anger is partially directed toward an inability to reach friends who work in both the Pentagon and World Trade Center. While I sit at the computer typing, I have no idea whether people I know are alive or dead.

I am equally angered by a heightened national rhetoric regarding the events of September 11, 2001, and the rapid degree to which blame is being assigned for assumed terrorist attacks. The speed with which calls for declarations of war came from various national leaders needs to stop. A war can’t be fought or declared against people who remain invisible.

What I find most disturbing is how, again and again, the word ‘terrorist’ means a person from anywhere in or around any Muslim/Arabic/non-white European country. Without a clearly defined group taking responsibility for the violence, any person from the Middle East cannot be labeled a terrorist threat.

Furthermore, many people are comparing yesterday’s aggression against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. While the desire to compare current events to the past makes good news copy, I want to suggest the persistent analogy making should also stop. A constant use of past events will only obscure the specificities of how and why the violence took place yesterday.

The events of World War II presented known and identified enemies. While not knowing who is responsible for the Tuesday’s events is maddening, the laying of blame before information is gathered is a dangerous and all-too-easy game to play.

An often-forgotten lesson of the Oklahoma City bombing was the initial television reports stating that Middle Eastern terrorists were responsible for the violence. The only country to offer that domestic United States terrorists could perhaps be responsible for the attack was Iran. Not many people took that suggestion seriously until Timothy McVeigh was taken into custody. I remember that report with disturbing clarity and I want to suggest that everybody in America think carefully before supporting any call for armed retaliation against another country or people.

I already know that the death toll from multiple plane crashes into highly populated buildings will be impossibly high. A popular American myth might say it is only in other countries that body counts in the thousands could occur on any given day.

As the son of a funeral director who has repeatedly witnessed the physical and personal effects of death, I can’t even comprehend the human damage done yesterday. While I find the loss of life maddening, I strongly suggest we wait until more information is known before any form of retaliation is even discussed.

John Troyer’s column appears alternate weeks. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]