One week after my husband was killed on 9/11, a co-worker cornered me in the hallway with a warning: “We have to kill them all,” she insisted, her eyes wild. “You of all people should understand.“
The woman was angry. She was also afraid.
That was the moment I first saw how terrorism might succeed. And even then, in the midst of my pain, I realized I had to make a choice.
In the weeks and months after the planes hit, the “us versus them” mentality created fault lines that divided friends and families. Nevertheless and for all too short a period, many New Yorkers remained determined to come together. Those of us who lived and worked in the region spent less time conceiving of ways to punish whole groups of people and more on proving our resilience through projects emphasizing rebirth and renewal. Many of us who had lost loved ones on 9/11 were determined to create a legacy that emphasized what was best, not worst, about humanity.
How briefly uplifting to work in concert with others trying, needing the world to be a better place. How disheartening to watch as the rhetoric of divisiveness fractured our communities.
Fifteen years out, we’re still in danger. Not just from terrorism, which kills far fewer people than does local violence, but from our own propensity for paranoia and anger.
We’ve been taught to fear many things. Terrorism feels personal, though. It literally puts a name and a face to our fears about ideologically impelled individuals with suicide vests. As such, it’s the anxiety-inducer of choice.
We should know by now that outsized reactions are precisely what extremists want. Still the fear-mongers make proposals to target and ostracize the Muslim community. None of this will make us safe— in fact, it’s quite the opposite. By ostracizing people we deem different, we push potentially powerful allies towards violent extremism. Groups that offer belonging, acceptance, and purpose languish, while the world is hurdling accusations and insults.
Think about the internment camps for Japanese-American citizens following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Or the misbegotten school drills that put children under wooden desks in preparation for a nuclear attack. Fear has inspired the continued encroachment of citizen’s privacy and the reckless comments from Presidential candidates.
Watch out, we’re cautioned. It’s close. They’re after us. Be terrified. Be incensed. Be both.
Fear wins. Or does it?
In the face of so much dread, I have dedicated myself to a search for signs of our better angels. I latch onto any piece of evidence as if it were a life preserver: posts about random acts of kindness. Last year I released an updated version of a work I penned, Hope in Small Doses, in which I embraced uncertainty and celebrated discovery. What we don’t know, I argue, can’t always hurt us. Sometimes it can inspire us, focus us, imbue us with purpose.
That is why I cherish my involvement with Search for Common Ground. I got involved with the international NGO shortly after my husband was killed in the attacks. Search works in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots to counter violent extremism. Its mission claims conflict can be transformed. Their track record proves them right.
Search disrupts recruitment of youth and de-radicalizes prisoners convicted of terrorism by treating the causes, not the symptoms, of violent extremism. They look at the push and pull factors that marginalize people outside the community and pull them into dangerous organizations. Search has found an inclusive, holistic approach that uses credible messages from credible messengers to remove the power from extremist groups. It then takes it a step further by mapping out an alternative path towards a future without violence and instilling confidence in that future. This approach has yielded results from Kyrgyzstan to Morocco to Indonesia.
What does fear accomplish? What does hate? The answer is nothing. Humans crave hope. They respond to the power of our applied humanity. Search has proven this time and time again.
9/11 taught me resilience and perseverance and the limits of rage. It also taught me how unhelpful anxiety is in imagining any sort of future.
Maya Angelou is quoted as saying “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same place. Invite one to stay.” I’ve already made my choice.
Nikki Stern is the author of HOPE IN SMALL DOSES and an upcoming murder mystery. The former executive director of Families of September 11, she accepted a Common Ground Award from Search for Common Ground in 2005. She remains a supporter and advisor.</p>
An earlier version of this blog appeared in The Broad Side.
Banner photo: Anthony Quintano on Flickr.