September 11, 2001. A hijacked passenger jet out of Boston crashes into the north tower of the World Trade Center, ripping a gaping hole in its façade and setting the building on fire. Eighteen minutes later, a second hijacked jet slams into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes. A young girl who is being evacuated tells her father, “Daddy, look. They’re doing it on purpose.”
Heart-wrenching words. An unwavering and resolute declaration from one so little. One from whom we expect candor and innocence. People the world over turn to news channels such as CNN and watch the drama unfold on live television. The footage is graphic, gripping.
Both towers are burning. As these two indomitable structures plummet to the streets below, first the south tower, then the north tower, they send plumes of black smoke high into the sky. Clouds of debris consume the streets of Lower Manhattan. The devastation is incomprehensible. Aaron Brown, anchor for CNN, tells viewers to simply take in the images on their television screens because, he explains, “there are no words.”
Throughout the world, people hold vigils and stand in solemn silence. They look to each other for comfort. They hold up their candles as symbols of hope. They listen for a voice of truth. They want and need a reason to believe in peace once again. They hold each other. In silence. There are no words.
In the aftermath of September 11, when it is clear Al Qaeda terrorists are responsible for the brutal attack on America, the image of Osama Bin Laden dominates the covers of news magazines. The people of the world wonder why they must look upon such a face. The face of a terrorist mastermind. The face of pure evil. Can they associate no other face, no other word, no other voice with September 11?
To find truth and reason in the brutality of September 11, the people of the world must look to September 11. No, not to September 11, 2001, but to September 11 over a hundred years ago, half a world away, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
September 11, 1906, allows us to reflect on the way violence and terrorism were addressed a century ago. It is an opportunity to learn a new word—the word—to associate with the recent September 11. That word is Satyagraha, truth-force.
Satyagraha was initiated by Mohandas Gandhi, who explained that “Satyagraha is a relentless search for Truth and a determination to search for Truth. Satyagraha is an attribute of the spirit within. Satyagraha can be described as an effective substitute for violence.” An eye for an eye, said Gandhi, only ends up making the whole world blind.
On September 11, 1906, Gandhi initiated his Satyagraha against the Natal government, a government that was trying to pass an ordinance to disenfranchise Indians living in South Africa and make life impossible for them. September 11, 1906, Indians gathered to discuss ways to challenge the ordinance. Gandhi proposed to them the idea of facing violence with non-violence and of fighting for truth and justice with suffering. He warned all in attendance that the pursuit of Satyagraha may mean imprisonment. He warned it may even cost participants their lives. All who attended the meeting pledged to resist the ordinance with non-violence, whatever the provocation.
Gandhi said there were 2000 participants against a nation capable of crushing the very existence out of them. He was uncertain who would listen to him, but the honour of South Africa was saved and a new history written by the Satyagrahis.
The year 1906 marked the beginning of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement. It began in Johannesburg and was later used in India to fight for that nation’s independence. Gandhi went on to explain that “[he] saw that nations, like individuals, could only be made through the agony of the cross and in no other way. Joy comes not out of infliction of pain on others but out of pain voluntarily borne by oneself. Violent means would give violent freedom, and that would mean a menace to the world. Real suffering, on the other hand, bravely borne melts even a heart of stone. Such is the potency of suffering and there lies the key to Satyagraha.”
Non-violence, Gandhi claimed, is the greatest force at man’s disposal. We hear about weapons of mass destruction, about chemical and biological warfare, about Anthrax and Ricin. Non-violence is mightier than any of these. We hear about Taliban rebels. We hear about the training of Al Qaeda terrorists at flight schools and in terror cells throughout the world. Just as one must learn the art of dying in the training for violence, Gandhi believed so must one learn the art of dying in the training of non-violence.
Those in the Western world might, understandably, want to retaliate against those who have attacked the symbols of our democracy, but this is not the answer. We must not respond to the events of September 11, 2001, with more violence. The answer does not lie in achieving victory through arms and bombs. Reconciliation is possible. Peace and non-violence are possible. Let us not look to martyrs such as Bin Laden. Let us not speak acrimoniously. Let not the images of a flattened Ground Zero be our symbol of lost hope.
Instead, adopt the image of Gandhi as your symbol. Let Satyagraha be the word you associate with September 11. Let non-violence redefine and rewrite our history.
Dare to remember a different September 11.