Dennis Rivers — September 11, 2004 article in the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper


A few months after 9/11, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks visited La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, near Santa Barbara, and I went to meet them.  At the time, still reeling from the emotional impact of the 9/11 attacks, I found myself feeling somewhat at odds with these maroon-robed visitors.  The monks seemed to me to be living in their little cocoon of Buddhist spirituality.  I wanted them to respond more visibly to the tragic history that was unfolding on the stage of the world. I asked one monk (who happened to be from England) what he thought of the events of 9/11.  He very quickly and assuredly said “There are no accidents in life. Every effect has its cause.”  And that was it.  Case closed.  This, I thought, was the most wooden answer any human being could have given to my question.  Had he no heart, this fellow so sure of himself, so sure of his doctrine?  He seemed to be implying that the 9/11 victims has somehow caused their own suffering.  In a very un-Buddhist mood, I wanted to shake him, to tell him to wake up and respond to the suffering of people in the real world. Several years have gone by, and I have had plenty of time to sort out my angry reaction to this monk.  And to see that there was a deep truth in his response, although perhaps not the one that he intended at that particular moment.  I am not sure that at the individual level of one human being, that every single effect has an individual cause.  As with molecules, there seems to be a lot of random chaos at the individual level; “Brownian motion,” they call it.  And, in relation to people, all teachings of morality and personal responsibility imply that our every action is not mechanically determined by what happened before it.  There is room for both effort and accidents.  At the group level however, how events get caused seems much more bound by the law of karma.  Individual molecules may randomly jump around a lot but at the group level, every effect has a definite set of causes.  Water, all those molecules put together, boils because you put the pot over the flame.  It is not an accident. And in relation to 9/11, we are now slowly realizing that this tragedy was not a random event, not a bizarre aberration.  For the past half-century the United States has been following policies in the Muslim world that seem to me to almost guarantee an explosion sooner or later.  While very few, if any, of the individuals in the World Trade Center on 9/11 had anything to do with the formulation of those policies, they were like molecules of water in the pot put on the stove, as are we all.  This leads to one of the most painful paradoxes of our time.  No one deserves to die such a fiery death as the 9/11 victims; and on the other hand, none of us can completely insulate ourselves from the consequences of the actions taken in our name. It is now widely recognized that the United States has grievously antagonized and agitated the Muslim world, especially in the following six ways:
  1. In the 1950s we overthrew the elected government of Iran and supported the return of the Shah, whom the Iranians did not want back. The Shah ruled with an iron hand, and the Iranians have not forgotten who gave him to them.
  2. For the sake of commercial gain, political advantage, and cheap oil, we have accepted and supported military dictatorships in countries throughout the Muslim world, from Nigeria to Indonesia, all the while preaching democracy and respect for human rights. When Saddam Hussein (who stayed in power with U.S. help) gassed his own people in the 1980s, we did not protest, because at that moment it was politically inconvenient for us to do so.
  3. In the 1980s we poured billions of dollars in arms and support into Muslim hate groups in Pakistan, to support an armed campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan (we called them “freedom fighters,” at the time).  Afghanistan was ground to pieces between  the armed might of the Soviet Union, and the armed might of our CIA-backed  legions.  One scholar has noted that there had never been a global Muslim jihad movement until the CIA funded one.
  4. While various U.S. administrations have tried to play a mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we do not seem to have any real principles that we will stick to. We also continue to give and lend billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, encouraging the military-might-is-the-only-answer wing of Israeli politics, alienating Muslims around the world  and cutting the ground out from under our role as mediators.
  5. For most of the past century the United States has been the largest arms exporter in the world. We invent and sell various instruments of death to everyone who will buy and look the other way as they kill one another.  Although the United States is the most influential country in the world, we exert no moderating influence on the arms trade.  Thus, governments around the world, including those of Muslim countries, spend money on arms instead of on the real needs of their peoples, breeding poverty, corruption and resentment.
  1. We also export an endless stream of violent movies and TV shows, showing people just how to use those guns, bombs, missiles, bazookas, and God knows what else, to solve every problem. Our strong tradition of moment-to-moment freedom of expression makes it almost impossible for us to think about the long term consequences when free expression glorifies people killing each other.  At the risk of offending just about everybody, I must confess how deeply convinced I am that the “Terminator” movies, and their blood-drenched ilk, are the theory, and 9/11 is the practice.  Do we really want to teach people around the world that killing is fun?  How many more Columbines and 9/11’s will it take to get us to look at the shadow side of our own freedom?
To sum up, the United States, for all its many virtues of dynamism and creativity, also happens to be a massive producer and exporter of both the culture and the instruments of violence.  It now seems to me that the Buddhist monk was right.  Every effect does have its cause.  It was only a matter of time, in a world made small by airplanes, before the violence we have exported would return to us. Like alcoholics in a 12-step meeting, the time has come for our “bomb-oholic” culture to face the basic truths of our life:
  1. The sorrow of 9/11 is, at the deepest level, of our own making.
  2. We can live differently, in relation to the world, and set different forces in motion.
To imagine now that we will be able to shoot and bomb our way out of the consequences of all our previous promotion of shooting and bombing, is like proposing to a gambler that he will be able to gamble his way out of the consequences of all his  previous gambling.  Not a very carefully thought-through plan, I must say. The alternative is clear, and is worth saying again:  We can live differently, and set different forces in motion.  
  Dennis Rivers is a writer/teacher/peace activist who lives in Santa Barbara, teaches communication skills at the Community Counseling Center, and edits several large public service web sites (including coopcomm.org, nonukes.org, and turntowardlife.org).  He received his MA in interpersonal communication and human development from the Vermont College Graduate Program, after studying sociology and religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, and theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  His books include The Geometry of Dialogue, The Seven Challenges Workbook, Prayer Evolving, and, most recently, Turning Toward Life., an exploration of reverence for life as a spiritual path.  The full text of all of Dennis’s books can found on the web by searching on Google for Dennis Rivers plus the full title of the book.

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