Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Loss of Innocence and Imagined Immunity

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Days later, we are still struggling for the words. But there is no language adequate to convey the horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Fear has gripped us, and its presence is alien to our national character. America changed on Sept. 11 in ways subtle and profound. We are now a different nation, suddenly, agonizingly, aware of our own mortality.

The world around us has been changing for years, of course. But on that black Tuesday, it all came crashing down around us. We somehow have imagined ourselves immune from vast stretches of the globe where our country's conspicuous, even absurd, levels of prosperity and privilege contrast shockingly with the litany of miseries faced by much of humanity. We have boldly declared our invincibility with 110-story skyscrapers, endless talk of the wonders of globalism and arrogant renunciations of agreements that seemed to bind everyone but America to international codes of justice and environmental protection.

We now know that America is neither immune nor invincible. We never were, save in our imaginations. We are, and always were, profoundly connected to the ills that confound our allies and breed resentment and blind hatred amongst the disenfranchised. Suddenly, there are no distant shores.

Here in Los Angeles, I am nearly 5,000 kilometers away from ground zero, but I am there now -- we are all somehow essentially there -- in New York.

My Russian father-in-law, who lives near New York, was supposed to be on the job at the World Trade Center on Tuesday. By the time he arrived, there were no more twin towers, just acrid smoke and carnage. I dialed Manhattan in desperation, but there was no dial tone for a city of over 10 million people. An entire city, swallowed in silence.

Gennady's voice faltered badly when we finally spoke. "Never, never in my life did I think I would live to see something like this -- certainly not in America." Gennady is not one easily given to emotion. Here is a man who spent his childhood in a Nazi camp, whose father was shot by the KGB, who loves this country that gave him refuge with all the zeal of a new immigrant. Listening to my father-in-law weep into the phone, I knew the myth of "America the Invincible," a myth that had seduced and sustained the hopes of millions, had died that day alongside the thousands who now lay lifeless in the smoldering debris.

Our illusions have been shattered, and our worst fears have come to the fore. What, then, is to be done?

Make no mistake: Americans will be tempted to take matters into their own hands, and they will respond with punitive military might. But in responding to these crimes against humanity, let us not lose our humanity. Justice must take precedence over vengeance -- that is how nations such as ours best demonstrate their dignity and exert leadership in a fractured world. In our haste to "do something" and lash out with overwhelming firepower, let us not lose sight of both the ethical and practical consequences of massive retaliation.

If the price of "victory" in this newly declared war on terrorism is an indiscriminate, massive loss of innocent life in Afghanistan or elsewhere, then we will have squandered our moral authority and encouraged rather than prevented the emergence of a whole new generation of terrorists who hate America. Russia's experience in Chechnya has much to teach us about the folly of combating terrorism through blanket condemnations and the violent, criminal punishment of an entire people.

While in Moscow last month, our 7-year-old daughter asked repeatedly why there were so many soldiers and police on the street and why they invariably stopped people with darker skin for questioning. "It's because of those terrorists -- they're all chyorniye [black]," one of our neighbors replied, echoing the prevailing prejudice. I do not want to tell my daughter the same ugliness could happen here.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attack, millions of Americans feel frightened and powerless to combat the threats posed by terrorism, much like millions of Russians felt after the Moscow apartment bombings of two years ago. But all of us -- average Americans and Russians -- can do something and do it right in our own backyards. We can turn the cruel, blind logic of terrorism on its head by refusing to scapegoat Moslems, Arab Americans, Chechens or anyone else based on their nationality, religion or skin color. We can refuse to demean ourselves to the level of terrorists by punishing an entire ethnic group for the heinous criminal acts of a few. America is better than that -- and so is Russia.

In the coming days and months, America will be tested as never before. We will fail that test if we resort to isolationism in a futile search for protection, if we dismiss the principles of international law and rely solely on our military might, not the strength of our ideals. We will fail if we turn inward and close our borders to immigrants seeking opportunity and freedom, curtail civil liberties and lash out against those who profess a different faith.

In this post-Cold-War age, when modernity itself -- symbolized by New York's iconic twin towers -- seems under assault, both America and Russia will struggle to redefine themselves in the face of new threats. Undoubtedly, there will be those in America, as there are those in the Kremlin, who will demand that we restrict essential freedoms in a misguided quest for security. But in sacrificing one for the other, we will attain neither.

Russia is no closer to ending the war in Chechnya after attempting to silence its domestic critics, nor have its deadly mop-up operations against Chechen civilians abated rebel attacks (to the contrary, they likely have encouraged them). Here in America, we will not stop terrorism by responding with a clenched fist instead of an open hand to Arab Americans, or by curtailing the first amendment rights of our citizens.

The very qualities that make this country the destination for millions around the world -- respect for civil liberties and individual freedom -- also make us vulnerable to those who hate us and the Enlightenment ideals we espouse. If we are lucky, our vulnerability will lead us to embrace a deeper humility and humanity as a nation.

May we have the courage to ask ourselves hard questions about America's leadership in a world of grievous injustices. May we find the strength to look in the mirror and see ourselves as others see us, not as we wish to be seen. The horrific events of Sept. 11 have shown us there are no distant shores. Life is to be lived, not feared; freedom is to be embraced not denied. In so doing, we deny terrorists their victory.

Cynthia Scharf, a former Moscow-based journalist, writes from Los Angeles. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.