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September 12, 2004

The Moment of Silence
Arash Jalali  [info|posts]

Candle.jpgLast year, on this very web site, I posted a piece about 9/11/2001 and the way I thought the world had changed after that tragic day. This year, however, I don't intend to add anything more to that already awful list. The railroad bombig in Madrid, the explosions in Istanbul, the non-stop loss of life in Baghdad, the now all-too-routine loss of innocent Palestinian and Israeli lives, the very recent terrorist attacks on Russian airliners and the hostage taking in southern Russia. So much happened this last year; so many dreadful things for which I am already too depressed to write about, and I don't think they even have anything to do with 9/11 - or maybe they do. Fortunately, I didn't lose any friends or relatives on Sept. 11, 2001, but I don't think I would ever forget that day. I don't think I would ever forget the way I felt the next few weeks after that.

It was a normal Tuesday afternoon. I happened to be at home. I was back from work early that day because I wasn't feeling like working much. I was trying to come in terms with the fact that I soon had to serve in the military and waste two years of my life, so I did what I usually do when I am down: do the most meaningless thing in the World I could think of, and that happened to be watching TV that day. I remember I was watching CNN when all of a sudden the regular programming stopped, and the news announcer said a plane had just hit the northern tower of the World Trade Center in New York. It made me watch the news with more interest but I honestly did not feel anything. There was still no word of terrorism. The anchors were talking about the possibility of a malfunction in the plane's navigation system when the second plane hit the southern tower. A few minutes after that there was news of a plane hitting the Pentagon and another one crashing in Pennsylvania. I saw pictures of people evacuating the White House. Still, I had the feeling of watching an action movie. I had no idea that I was watching the events that changed the world.

For some reason I cannot still quite understand, I did not think the least bit about the innocent lives lost in those planes. This changed however, the next early morning that I woke up. I turned on the TV, foolishly expecting things to have gone back to normal, but they hadn't. They showed the picture of a lady whose face I had seen a few times on CNN. I did not even know her name until that day. Her name was Barbara Olson. They said she was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. I cannot quite describe the feeling I had. Having seen the picture of someone I had only seen a few times, who was now among the dead. On my way to work a million questions came to my mind. How must it really have been like? How would it feel to be on a plane like that? Why would anyone do such a thing? What were those terrorists thinking right before they rammed the plane into the building? What could possibly drive not just one man, but nineteen men, to do such a thing? And during all this, the face of that woman was in my mind. The face of this human being, whom I knew almost nothing about, was all I had of all the 2750 people who died that day. Now I think I understand why some people would wish they hadn't met someone who they had heard just died. No matter how little you know that person, you feel like you have lost someone, and you cannot stop thinking that there was absolutely no reason why it should have been him or her, and that scares you.

During the days after 9/11, I witnessed that people's reactions were rather mixed. Here in Tehran, there were some who gathered and lit candles, mourned the loss of innocent lives, and empathized with the families of the victims. There were also people who were actually excited about it, not out of some twisted sense of religious fundamentalism, as most of them were not even remotely religious, but I suppose they had this strange feeling of statisfaction that someone had managed to hit the untouchable, the bully, the imaginary entity that they had this ambivalent feeling of love and hatred towards; the United States of America.

I was of course dismayed by the latter group's ignorance. I kept asking myself: "How could they forget the fact that they were innocent human beings?". However, I was not quite able to understand the former group either. I remember having a dear friend as my guest those days. As usual, we discussed many things, and 9/11 was, of course, one of them. He at some point suggested that we take a minute of silence in honor of those who died on the Eleventh of September, 2001. Despite the great respect I have always had for that friend who also happened to be much much older than me, I declined.

I am not going to pass any judgement on the people who lit candles in Tehran, and I do not intend to analyse their behavior to see why they did it. Here, I would simply like to share my own feelings.

It is true that I feel for those who lost their lives and their families. It is true that I am as shocked as a person living halfway around the world can be, and that I am utterly disgusted with the savagery with wich those innocent people have been killed. However, I cannot forgive "me", if I allowed myself to take a moment of silence, or light a candle for the victims of 9/11, while I am yet to take several moments of silence, and many more candles for the loss of innocent lives in my own country, though deep inside, I might have grieved it more than the loss of life on 9/11. I do not remember myself having taken a moment of silence for those young men who lost their lives in the eight year old war with Iraq. I do not remember myself having taken moments of silence for the many innocent men and women who lost their lives in the bombings of Iranian cities by Saddam. I do not remember myself having taken a moment of silence for the victims of Iran Air 655, and I do not remember myself having taken a moment of silence for my fellow university students who were battered, tortured, and imprisoned after the 1999 uprisings. I bemoaned them all in the privacy of my heart, but I never took a moment of silence and I never lit a candle for them, and I guess, neither did the American people.

I believe, public display of grief over the loss of innocent lives can be ethical, moral, or hypocritical. It might even be pathetic. Since I personally have failed to do the ethical as well as the moral acts, I would at least like to feel I am not a pathetic hypocrite.

Ron at September 12, 2004 09:57 PM [permalink]:

I can sympathize with your dilemma about having mixed feelings about hypocrisy in commemorating the dead. When I was 13 in the U.S., my whole class was asked to write letters of condolence to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Even then I sensed the hypocrisy of choosing to mourn these people and not the many more who are killed all over the world every day. Why is this group of strangers any different from all the rest? I sensed a kind of bigotry behind the exercise and refused to participate. I refused to mourn these people out of principle. This was generally my attitude for the next 7 years… until that Tuesday morning. For the 9/11 victims, I mourned.

Why? I didn’t know. They were different from the rest, somehow. In retrospect, I realize that mourning, with the exception of those victims we have a personal connection to, has much more to do with the circumstances of the tragedy than with grieving over the individual victims themselves. Oklahoma was a lesser tragedy because it was carried out by someone who was mentally ill. Daily killings in remote Africa seem to us as acts of tribal vengeance that don’t affect us. But what is it about 9/11 that’s different? First of all, it was carried out by healthy people, and was meticulously planned. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it was completely random. New York is possibly the most diverse city in the world. It could have been any one of us on those planes or working in those towers. This is probably the key. I mourn the victims of 9/11 because I could have been one of them. Millions of people around the world visit New York, and they could have been victims too.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that mourning the victims of murder isn’t hypocrisy if you could see yourself as one of them. And I think many felt this way about 9/11.

Babak S at September 12, 2004 10:08 PM [permalink]:


Thanks for breaking the ice of FToI. I have two brief remarks on your post, at least for now:

I think I understand the point you raise about the feelings and emotions for the victims of the 9/11 attacks being personal, especially for someone living half a globe away; and I think I understand the absurdity of two such individuals taking a moment of silence in the privacy of their home, as if the lives that were lost in these atatcks were somehow intrinsically more valuable than those lost in the incidents you listed (the Iraq-Iran war, etc.); but...

1) But, public display of grief could and does serve an important purpose: the people who held a candle vigil in Tehran made news and sent an unmistakable message to the people in the West, a message of solidarity and of universal nature of human experience.

2) As to the moments of silence you are suggesting we have missed for the innocent Iranian lives lost in all the possible horrible ways (the war, or the Airbus hit, etc.): I don't think the people of Iran, including you and me, missed those moments--to the contrary, we lived them.

The people in the West, notably Americans, did actually miss their chance to send the message their Iranian counterparts sent with their lit candles in the wake of 9/11 attacks. What one must do is not to feel contempt for those vigils, but to encourage them, and the spirit of solidarity among all nations--the sense of universality of the values and experiences that connect and bind all human beings together.

Arash Jalali at September 13, 2004 04:09 AM [permalink]:

Ron and Babak, thanks for your comments. It's nice to see FToI back on track. Allow me to offer some clarifications:

I know exactly what Ron means about mourning a random loss of life, one that could have very well happened to oneself. Like I said, I was deeply saddened by the loss of life on 9/11 when the reality and the magnitude of the event struck me after seeing that lady's face on TV. I can now very well imagine feeling that it could have been someone close I knew, if not myself. However, my point was more about the public display of my sympathy, and it was rather on a personal note.

Yes, I somehow meant to imply that I believe others who participate in public displays of sympathy should apply the same logic to their action, but since I, in the case of the people taking part in the vigil in Tehran, was not sure if they had, I decided to only apply it to myself.

Yet, let me be honest with you here, Babak. Now that you mentioned it, I happen to agree with you that the rather "spontaneous" gathering of people in Tehran, holding candles in honor of 9/11 victims was carrying a message, but I am not so sure that it was "unmistakable" as you put it. Can you honestly tell me that the not-so-widely-covered news of the vigil was received, if at all it was received, as "a message of solidarity and of universal nature of human experience" by the American people? To be honest with you, I am not even sure the people who sent the message had the same intention in mind. Is it not possible that the message it sent was equally if not more suggestive of display of fear of retaliation by a mighty military power that was shaken to its roots by those attacks? Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to say they unanimously did so out of fear, and even if they did I don't think I can still blame them. However, the message, which I highly doubt was even properly received by the American public amid that hurricane of shock and anger, was not unmistakable, and that's why I thought it would make me feel pathetic if I publicly displayed my sadness. It would have felt pathetic because it would have felt to me as more of a kiss-up than sympathy, and it would have been hypocritical because I hadn't even done it for my own people. Maybe I was more inclined to publicly display it for the victims of the Bali bombing. I didn't, and neither did the people in the Mohseni circus.

Babak S at September 13, 2004 02:41 PM [permalink]:

Dear Arash,

Let's not get into the psychology of the people who held that vigil or their personal intentions, nor the impact of it on the american people in the frenzy created by the 9/11 attacks.

The point is, in my experience, no one who heard about and paid attention to the brief news of the candle vigil in Tehran thought it was out of fear, nor did any news outlet (BBC and CNN, for instance) that broadcast the news--the title in bold was, as I said, one of solidarity. I believe, while the official relationship of the US and Iran is in such turmoils, that simple circus traveled farther than any other, into the psyche of the american people. As an illustration of this, I don't think any honest journalist would make a report on the US-Iran relations per 9/11 events (and there have been a few so far, as evidence) withought mentioning that vigil.

Many an American might not know about this particualr vigil in Tehran, naturally, as it wasn't such a big deal anyways given the circumstances, but this doesn't change how it was received by those who received it. It does not so much matter either what each individual participant in the vigil thought at the moment.

Kritiker at September 13, 2004 05:55 PM [permalink]:

What's the big deal about "taking or not taking a moment of silence"? Is it really the problem?
If you have concerns about the way the world is heading, you could be more effective by doing lots of other things. Psychoanalysis of the mourners (genuine or hypocritical ones) is not the most efficient way to deal with the affairs of the world.

Arash Jalali at September 14, 2004 06:26 AM [permalink]:

Dear Babak,

You are right. There is no point in speculating about other people's state of mind in this context, and I am willing to take your word for it if you say the news has had some positive impact, although I am not sure how much such an impact, limited or otherwise, matters. If I were an American. I wouldn't know what to believe; the candles or the burning of the flag and effigies.

Like you said, it doesn't matter what the intent is, or that they are not even the same people.

Without trying to imply that this post was about anything more than my personal feelings, I should say unless I am willing to do something concrete about the thugs that burn flags and recruit suicidal combatants to "protect" the holey shrines in Iraq against Americans, I would rather not extend my symbolic gestures to anyone before my own people, and settle for my sincere private grief over the loss of innocent lives; Iranian, American, Israeli, Iraqi, Palestinian, or otherwise.

Dear Kritiker,
The time that I felt I could change where world is heading is long passed. I am not even sure I have the stomach to change where my own country is heading. This post was merely about my personal feelings. I did not mean to judge anyone, and I posted this article hoping that as a result of the discussions, the only positive change, if any, would be in nothing and no one but myself.

kritiker at September 14, 2004 10:12 AM [permalink]:

One of my extremely apolitical friends who lives in CA has recently started to travel regularly to Neveda with a group of his friends in order to register democrats to come and vote. They do house visits and talk to people and try to tell them the trivial but highly-ignored fact that any single vote matters. This is a good way of doing politics I believe. Of course few people have the ability to influence the world visibly, but this is no excuse for the others to sit down. I completely
respect your idea about self-improvement, but I think if people like you shy away from politics
then the world is not going to change the course it has taken.

vahid_agha at September 17, 2004 03:34 PM [permalink]:

An Iran and Middle-east-related web blog in French:

In order to make ourselves more vocal on the boiling democracy movement in Iran and on the West's counter-productive policies of the Middle East hampering democracy in the Middle East, I have created this blog. I am aiming to better edify the readers of the aspirations of Iranians for democracy and of their rejection of the theocratic system in Iran. Below is the URL:

Wellesley Girl at September 18, 2004 10:31 PM [permalink]:

I have been wanting to write for this site for quite a while. I sent the editors an email a long time ago under my pseudonym and they claimed that they need to know my real name and info at least for their own records before they can publish anything of mine. I have written for other online sites before, and I don't have any problem revealing my real identity. But I don't understand, how fair is it for them to know all about me, while I have no freaking clue who are the members of the editorial board of this site! I feel like doing some secret service work for the mafia! And what is worse to see is that other people seem to be totally ok with this!

Babak S at September 21, 2004 12:52 AM [permalink]:

Wellesley Girl:

As an author of FToI, I can assure you there's no mafia business going on here. The editors are a few ordinary volunteer authors, and their anonymity, as I understand it, is only meant to make the editorial services they offer unbiased and impersonal. They do not decide over the content of the site, and keep changing anyways, so it doesn't really matter who they are. The authors, however, all write under their real names, and you can check them out at the authors page, linked up just below the banner of the site, on any page.

Wellesley Girl at September 22, 2004 03:03 AM [permalink]:

Babak, first you talked about authors anonymity then you said they all write under their real name. Also, you are saying it doesn't really matter who the authors are, but to me, I decide whether it matters or not, right?

Mohammad at September 22, 2004 09:56 AM [permalink]:

I think the policy is pretty standard. This is a multi-author web publication. The names of the regular authors are known and posted (take a look at the index page). The editors are chosen from a pool of contributing authors, hence they are members of the same group of known poeple. Either Wellesley Girl has a problem with standard English (since rotating, anonymous editors chosen from known group of authors does not imply any subvertive connotation) or she is paranoid. If you don't want to write for the site it is your loss, not ours.

Wellesley Girl at September 22, 2004 04:50 PM [permalink]:

First of all, I knew that this is a multi-authored website. I have been involved with many myself, and I could figure that out by clicking on the Author's link; I am not that computer illiterate! Why do you assume people to just intuitively know how the editors are selected for this site? Moreover, if this is how you treat the people who show interest but are confused and have question (ie, condescending, aloof, and defensive), remind me again why you named this site FREE thoughts?!
Also, paranoia is a serious medical condition, like diabetes, it's nothing to make fun of, even if I have it!
PS. The only person who took time to contact me (don't dub me schitzophrenic now, it was via IM) and respectfully replied to my question was the author of this post. Thanks Arash.

Wellesley Girl at September 22, 2004 05:02 PM [permalink]:

I see, I was a little harsh on Babak. Sorry, I didn't mean to. Anyway, that wouldn't justify you guys' attacking me!

Babak S at September 23, 2004 01:48 AM [permalink]:

Wellesley Girl,

I don't mind people being harsh on me, but I appreciate your appology :) I think you read too carelessly what I had written: I talked about editors' anonymity not authors' and then I wrote

The authors, however, all write under their real names...

Another thing: why should you assume that Mohammad has named the site, Free Thoughts? It's simply not the case! I believe all the exchanges of thoughts and ideas here in the comment sections, including the one between you, me and Mohammad are in fact proof that the title "Free" is being upheld. Cheers!

FToI Editorial Board at September 23, 2004 11:31 AM [permalink]:

Dear All,

Thank you for your comments and taking interest in FToI. Thanks to our fellow authors and readers who took time to clear misunderstandings regarding FToI editorial policies. We also thank Wellesley Girl for her interest in FToI and apologize for any inconvenience our policies have caused her. Although, the editorial board would generally rather have such conversations with its readers through its email address:free[AT]freethoughts[dot]org, we should like to offer this explanation here in hope of clearing out this matter.

The editors, as mentioned by our fellow author Babak Seradjeh, are volunteers among the active authors of FToI, whose names are listed in the authors' index. To further promote a sense of partnership among the FToI team, not to mention the fact that the editorial job could be quite time consuming at times, the founders of FToI, who are again among the authors, decided that the editorial responsibilities should be periodically taken by different volunteers from the authors. As Babak noted, the identity of the editors is kept confidential to keep the editorial responsibilities unbiased and impersonal. It would also protect the volunteer authors' ideas and posts from being unfairly taken as the official position of the board of editors, which could in turn make them the target of unfair criticism and possible harassment.

As for our policy of asking our guest authors about their real names, we should state that since our permanent authors write articles under their own real names, they, and not FToI as a whole, will be responsible for the ideas expressed in their articles. This also applies to those guest authors who submit articles under their real names. FToI has nonetheless left open the possibility of posting a guest article under a pseudonym, in special cases when revealing the true identity of a guest author could put the guest author, author(s) of FToI, or FToI as a whole in some perceived danger, or the guest author has, for other justified reasons, reservations about publicly revealing his/her true identity. The final decision as to whether or not the article should be published under the guest author's real name is solely made, after considering the case on the basis laid out above, by the FToI editorial board and upon mutual agreement between the board and the author. If no such agreement is reached, the article may not be published.

At any rate please note that posting an article under a pseudonym does not mean FToI will take responsibility for any liabilities resulting from such a post. FToI reviews submitted articles in good faith and solely evaluates them as regards quality of content, and if need be, applies reasonable editorial modifications to it. We do not investigate about the originality of the content, nor do we have the means to evaluate them with respect to any possible civil and/or criminal liabilities. That is why we need to know the real identity of the author.

We hope the above explanation has helped clarify the reasons behind the policies we adopt. We welcome any ideas and comments regarding such matters from our readers, preferably through email.

Ali Mahani at September 25, 2004 01:44 AM [permalink]:

Monsieur Vahid

j'ai visité votre weblog et j'ai lu quelques-uns de ses articles. C'est vraiment sympa ce log et les contenus je les trouve très intéressants- en tout cas beaucoup plus intéressants que ceux qui paraîssent sur FToI!

Et bien alors bon courage mon pote.

AmericanWoman at October 3, 2004 11:05 AM [permalink]:

Uh...getting back to Arash's post (revenons a nos moutons!), i.e., the hypocrisy of public mourning for victims of 9/11 instead of any other victims of similar tragedies: I think there is still value in going through the motions. We were all aware that it was only the scale of 9/11 that was different. I mean, the World Trade Center had actually been bombed a few years before (5 years?), allegedly by "MiddleEasternTerrorist" masterminded by some Mullah in New Jersey.

The US is a much more violent, chaotic place than it may appear from the outside. Oklahoma, Anthrax, Mailbombs, Waco. I live on the border of Mexico. It isn't Iraq but certainly kidnappings, ransom, gangsters, drug-related deaths are regularly seen.

Something about 9/11 was just so...big. All those people who died just because they went to work. It felt like we were hitting some kind of critical mass, like we were sliding completely out of control. I myself remember feeling kind of sick at all the media hype and spin. --In fact, I didn't watch any coverage until the one-year "anniversary."

My point is that there was something positive, even if ever so weak, about standing publicly for a moment of silence, recognizing, aknowledging, mourning, protesting, all of us in communion, sharing those feelings of sadness, helplessness, bewilderment, anxiety, etc.

Just because it wasn't enough, doesn't mean it was no good.