A series on the relationship between the arts and international affairs
by Alana Chloe Esposito
“Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other.” - W.E.B. DuBois, American Civil Rights Activist
For it isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it.
And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it.
- Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Musings on the anniversary of the decade: 10 years on, still little clarity and much anxiety, but also restored faith in human resilience and rejuvenation
On September 11, 2001 a personal tragedy was unfolding in my life, eclipsing the national — or rather global — one that knocked the wind out of everyone around me. I too was shocked and horrified by the acts of terror, yet, having already reached my capacity for absorbing grief, I avoided internalizing these events. College-bound and intent on studying international relations, I strove to process them intellectually instead. I grappled with the fundamental questions that always seem to present themselves during tragedies through courses on security, on political philosophy, and on the state of crisis in which our peaceful, democratic, human rights- championing society finds itself in a post Abu Ghraib world. Indeed throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, which have filled the better part of the intervening decade, the events of September 11th and their geopolitical implications never strayed far from the center of the conversation.
Over the past week however, some of the more thoughtful commemorative articles, photo-essays, and reflections that currently flood the media have provoked in me an emotional processing of that tragic day. I cried over the attacks for the first time while reading New York Magazine’s dedicated issue, which I find particularly touching precisely because it avoids sentimental editorializing, letting the facts — significant and mundane alike – speak for themselves. Based out of the country as I am, I felt acutely homesick for New York, while simultaneously closer than ever to it.
I’ve never really understood why our society places such high significance on dates – after all, we don’t miss the departed any less on the days that don’t mark an anniversary. Nonetheless, taking a step back occasionally to asses how life has changed, or not, in the aftermath of milestone events can be fruitful. Thus, in so far as they invite contemplation, I appreciate the outpouring of remembrances that swarm the media and blogosphere.
Judging from these commemorations, many of us seem to perceive the decade that has unfolded since al-Qaeda hurled commercial airplanes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvanian field along a continuum of two dominant narratives: desperation and demise on one hand and revelation and regeneration on the other. The doomsayers’ case is certainly persuasive in light of the two frightful American-led wars in the Middle East, bloody conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Sudan, rampant religious and sectarian strife in some regions. As if that weren’t bad enough, we’ve also faced a global financial crisis that has pushed many into poverty, dirty politics, repression of civil liberties and human rights by democratic and authoritarian regimes alike, and devastating natural disasters possibly caused by climate change. It is enough to plunge any reasonable person into depression. And, while 9/11 did not set all of these ugly truths into motion, understandably, some see that day as a turning point that irrevocably spoiled the peace and prosperity – or at least the illusion thereof – that we took for granted around the turn of the 21st century.
Still, the other, more positive narrative is a no less accurate account of life after 9/11. As we know, the initial “we’re all in this together” spirit and demonstrative support quickly faded as repeated American policy blunders tried our allies’ patience abroad and fueled partisan bickering at home. But, the sentiment behind Le Monde’s September 12th headline, “Nous sommes tous américains,” still means something in the context of freedom (in the true sense of the word, not as it pertains to fries nor as it is defined by the flag-pin wearing, intolerant among us) versus fear and submission. If it didn’t, how would one explain the phenomenon taking place across Arab countries. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the “Arab Spring” has any direct relationship to September 11th and the events that stemmed from it. Nor am I implying that these developments will necessarily beget positive outcomes. I merely understand it as a sign that the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness still resonates with human beings everywhere.
Within the United States, for every account of a loathsome, Islamophobic hate-crime directed at American Muslims, there is a counter-example of interfaith dialogue initiatives and gestures of solidarity. Many courageously refused to let minority extremists taint the image of mainstream, peaceful Islam. Betsy Wiggins from Syracuse, for one, called the local mosque and invited a Muslim woman she did not know over for coffee to start a dialogue in the days after 9/11 (see NYT article). Gestures like these, no matter their size, are significant. So, among the heroes of 9/11 we can count the Betsy Wiggins’ of the world and applaud them for seeking solace through knowledge and dialogue rather than succumbing to the human, but nonetheless dangerous temptation to avenge suffering.
In this yearning to understand, rather than blindly reject “the other” lies the key to digging our way out of the darkness of 9/11. Though still underway, this process has already fueled resilience on every level from personal to global. The goal is not to return to the way things used to be, but to arrive at something better. Wouldn’t that be the best way to ensure that those who perished on that day did not do so in vain?
Far from novel, the notion that respect and tolerance for opposing viewpoints and unfamiliar ideas underlies the spirit of the United Nations. A body assembled from the ashes of the Second World War, it set out prove that no ideology, or thirst for power, or anything else that has historically sparked wars is worth repeating the mistakes of the past. For all the justified criticism of the UN, the fact that it exists at all is remarkable. Even its harshest critics, hailing from the proverbial “non-West” generally clamor to change it from within by attaining a permanent seat on the Security Council, rather than turning their backs on the institution.
How much of a positive impact does the UN have on the world today? It is difficult to asses in part because the answer is quite subjective. Certainly, it has failed at it’s main goal of preventing war and even genocide, has been marred by politics, and is seen by some as ineffective at best, if not counterproductive in its efforts to maintain international peace and security. But, try for a moment to imagine a world without the UN and its well-intended projects and agencies from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the World Health Organization. We would certainly be no better off without them. At least the UN has forced the world to acknowledge its worst deficiencies in caring for its people. Indeed, those of us who came of age long after the UN was firmly established take for granted the ideas articulated in its charter, so engrained have they become in our consciousness.
For emphasis, it is worth revisiting the preamble of the charter here:
WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
1. to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
2. to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
3. to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
4. to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
AND FOR THESE ENDS
1. to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and
2. to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
3. to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
4. to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS.
How do we accomplish these aims? Through treaties and peacekeeping missions surely. But also by building tolerance through dialogue, the arts, sports – cross-cultural contact of any kind.
Eleanor Roosevelt, an early delegate to the UN General Assembly, one of the key authors of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, and founder of the UN Association of the United States, leaves behind a wealth insight regarding how to recover from a violent past. Among her notable sayings is: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”
Isn’t that what the rescue workers who risked their lives to help others did? Isn’t that what every New Yorker does each time she gazes at the altered skyline still confident in her city’s future? Isn’t that what we all do when we resolve to contribute to national regeneration?
And so, as we struggle to process the preceding decade, which no one saw coming, we are inevitably sorting through a mixed bag. Of course the bag is mixed. Only a hollywood screenwriter could write us an ending wherein Lady Liberty sails off into the sunset after having vanquished Evil (although the capture of Bin Laden within six months of the 10th anniversary comes rather close in some ways). Likewise, only the darkest fiction writer would dare signify September 11th as the beginning of the end.
Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Edward Rothstein remarked that many of our public remembrances have an apologetic tone or are even characterized by self-blame (see NYT article). Perhaps he is right to suggest that we ought not to feel obliged to conceal our grief and our lingering fears under a stoic facade by shifting the conversation from scary Islamic extremists to regret over all human suffering, regardless of cause. Yet, the White House talking points that Rothstein ridicules for overprescribing humility with regards to commemorations, set a refreshingly nuanced and thoughtful tone.
September 11th knocked us out of the saddle. We fumbled around a while before we started to regain our footing. Some of our reactions were, in hindsight, self-destructive, steering us further from our desired path. But, the 10th anniversary does not mark the end of the story. Disagreements over how best to move forward still linger. Who knows when we will regain the confidence we need to win the competition against violent hatred. But we can still get back in saddle, if we so choose. Some might even argue we already have. And that, as any equestrian knows, is half the battle.
About the author
Alana Chloe Esposito is a civil society leader with more than 12 years of combined experience in journalism, human rights advocacy, foreign policy, and the arts. She currently directs international policy and engagement for Common Ground, a Greek initiative to accelerate progress on social issues from greening the economy to reducing inequalities to safeguarding refugee rights -- through strategic cooperation.
In her previous capacity as a journalist, she wrote about art and cultural diplomacy for publications including The New York Times and served as UN correspondent for several media outlets, reporting through the lens of gender equality on topics including refugee experiences, sexual violence in conflict, and the UN's global development agenda.
She holds a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a M.A. in International Affairs from Sciences Po Paris and is a Senior Fellow of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute. alanaesposito.com