9/11 comes on strong this year, a flood of media stories, personal memorials, new analyses, videos of ground zero, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Grief, horror, shock and much loss. My cousin emerged from the subway at Church Street that morning, looked up and saw the collapsing mushroom cloud and ran for his young life, not stopping for fifty blocks, he said later.

Sudden human death is one of life’s most traumatic events. An attack of this kind evokes severe anguish for loved ones and overwhelming anger at the perpetrators. The terrorist group that engineered this nightmare were acutely mad and hateful; since then they have been justifiably demonized. America the wounded heroic country assailed by a wacko fringe of Saudi Al Qaeda killers .

So the usual version goes as we focus on our own aggrieved feelings and reject those killer Muslims.

But in today’s complex world, the story of 9/11 is not simple. The necessary and unanswerable question is ‘why’? Why were 3000 people slaughtered on that September day (plus post-attack 4500 war-related deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan)? Who and why could be so hateful to cause such devastation

‘Muslim extremists’ is the overt answer. They envied our American way of life. They hate our religion and our democracy and free markets. Demonizing starts and ends there for most people–us and them.

But the larger answer is less simple and less self righteous. Since the 20th century America has positioned itself, indeed intruded itself, as a militant godfather into the affairs of foreign nations: Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Argentina, Panama, Serbia, two European ‘World’ wars and (post 9/11) Iraq and Afghanistan to mention only some overt actions. Many more intrusions are covert and hidden from the public view.

America has also inserted itself as a charitable nation as well. Countless humanitarian governmental and non-governmental (NGO) organizations exist overseas working on behalf of health, agriculture, industry and politics. No country in the history of civilization has ever intended more help for others. Much good has been done; much love has been left behind–but also resentment in the form of our materialistic and condescending style of ‘helping’ others, in both visible and invisible actions. Aid workers ride around in white pickups and SUVs leaving dust behind in the faces of impoverished walking locals on their way to an American-funded water well.

In India I once spoke with a local AIDS organization director who turned down millions of Gates Foundation money because GF had their own idea of how to do HIV outreach in India. The rejection set GF back and forced them to reconsider their approach to native traditions and methods. Only when they agreed to follow the local lead did the money flow to the Indians.

The point here is that American good will is not so welcome around the world because it comes with strings attached: our way of life is better so do things our way. Our materialist wealth has lead to militaristic, religious and political arrogance and condescension toward smaller less powerful countries, which is felt and tolerated for the most part because they need the money.

But ‘terrorists’ (activists who resort to violence) don’t want the money. They want their own culture, religion, laws and forms of government–whether American agrees with them or not. They hate our style of pushing small nations around and manipulating their politics. And they hate our neglect of desperate nations who do need our help but are mostly ignored. Perhaps more than any other nation, the ‘nation’ of Palestine has been viewed by many–especially Arabs–as an abused punching bag of western power (which includes Israel). Sixty years of conflict in the Palestine-Israel region still festers in the political bullring with no resolution in sight. Unconditional American support of Israel has brought down the wrath of Islam upon us, PLO terrorism not withstanding.

Is all this simplistic? Yes, but not wholly inaccurate. To understand why thousands of innocent American were killed on 9/11 we need to look at the thousands of lives lost, especially since World War II, in which America has transgressed on the territory and sovereignty of foreign nations. (We have been involved in 28 war actions since 1675; eleven of these on American soil; ten since and including WWII.)

We are not alone on this planet. We are not really a ‘super’ power with impunity for our foreign policies. We have offended others mightily. We are not wholly clean and the Arab and Muslims are not wholly dirty–we are all unclean with blood on our hands. 9/11 was a pitiful, small and horrifying effort at payback that solved nothing.

The only way forward to a peaceful world is to listen to one another as equals and join together to cure the hostility between our tribes. In the end, although some want war, most want peace much more.

By Richard Ammon
September 11, 2011