America in the Post 9/11 World
“A moment of patience in a moment of anger prevents a thousand moments of regret....”
The tragic events of September 11, 2001 mesmerized the world. Humanity as a whole was outraged over the incident. The United States was presented with a golden opportunity to embrace other cultures and religions who legitimately felt sorrow for the victims. But instead, America entered into what would become the global “War on Terror.”
Immediately following 9/11, Americans were angry and many looked for revenge. “A moment of patience in a moment of anger prevents a thousand moments of regret” spoke the revered Hazrat Ali. Profound and timely words by a man whose religion and culture has become synonymous with that of the “the enemy.” Patience. Not an easy thing to apply when 3,000 of your citizens died a horrible death. But this is when it is most important. Ali’s words are a warning: in trying times one should take a step back and reflect; be introspective; think long and hard before making difficult decisions, particularly those that decide the lives of thousands of innocent people.
In Buddhism, there is a Tibetan term called shenpa. It refers to the root cause of aggression and anger translated often as “attachment.” It is the “charge behind our thoughts and words and actions,” as Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun teaches. “It comes along with a very seductive urge to do something. Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentality blaming this person, or wanting revenge.” Shenpa can apply to mundane circumstances such as a spat with a spouse or boss, but when it happens on a global scale, such as a decision to invade and occupy a country, it can have dire consequences, making Ali’s words all the more relevant. There is a term in Arabic called Saber that implies the need for patience, which counteracts the effects of shenpa.
Great powers and great men must act with mindfulness, not anger. Abu Hurairah reported that the messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “The strong man is not one who is good at wrestling, but the strong man is one who controls himself in a fit of rage” (Bukhari, Muslim). Prophet Muhammad’s visit to the city of Ta’if exemplifies Ali’s idea of patience. There, 70 miles South-East of Mecca, he hoped to find refuge from the pagan Quraysh tribe who controlled the city of Mecca and were hostile to his efforts to spread Islam in Arabia. However, instead of a warm reception, he was pelted with rocks and forced to flee for his life. Bloodied and bruised, he returned to Makkah. The death of his uncle, Abu Talib, an influential leader within the city, left the Prophet without protection from the Quraysh. Who was he to turn to for help? The Muslims living in Makkah had been afraid to receive their Prophet; the chiefs were hostile, except for one – the kind hearted Mut’im ibn-‘Adi -- a pagan, who extended his hand in friendship and support. And so the survival of Muhammad, his followers, and the very existence of Islam itself, fell to the hands of a non-believer.
This generosity was not lost on the Prophet. He could have taken his revenge on those from the city of Ta’if who had wronged him. Islam may not have a word for revenge as we do in the West, but the Prophet was certainly in a position of power where he could have exacted a strong penalty to the citizens of Ta’if. He could have, as George Bush did following 9/11, used his position of power to announce to the citizens of Ta’if: “You’re either with us, or against us.” Instead of threats, Prophet Muhammad showed compassion and generosity towards the citizens of Ta’if who recognized his wisdom and quickly embraced the new faith. The Prophet showed patience instead of anger.
America often employs our arsenal of impressive technological weaponry without first practising patience. As Ali warns, the consequence, potentially being a “thousand moments of regret,” America begins to re-evaluate the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and search for a way to exit militarily from Afghanistan. As I say in my book, Walking the Tiger’s Path: A Soldier’s Spiritual Journey in Iraq, “seeing humanity as a whole is the only way conflicts are going to be resolved; we must understand the other persons’ perspective. If we are going to assume we’re right, we’re either going to be wrong, or the other person is not going to listen. We have to understand that everyone is patriotic for his/her own country and will die for it. But Americans assume that everyone wants what we want.”
Sadly, the world will continue to be subjected to the horrors of war, fighting a war of necessity as opposed to one of choice such as the invasion of Iraq. Change will only come when we as a world community, whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, or all the other countless religious communities across the planet, recognize shenpa when it arises, and have the wisdom and compassion as great leaders have done, to counter it with patience, as Ali’s profound words suggest.
“And verily, whosoever shows patience and forgives, that would truly be from the things recommended by Allah.”
The Holy Quran [42:43]
The author is a former sergeant with the US Armed Forces and was deployed in Iraq. He has written his experiences in Iraq in a book titled Walking the Tiger’s Path: A Soldier’s Spiritual Journey in Iraq. He currently teaches history at the Andrew Jackson High School in Florida.