Editor’s Note: The speech below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Few are as dedicated to their cause as Rob Whitley. The 29-year-old was born in Jersey, England, and today is a doctoral student at Kings College at the University of London, where he is investigating relationships between social capital, the micro-environment and common mental disorders. Rob is the former president of the Federation of Young European Greens and recently ran for election to the British Parliament as the Green Party candidate.
When terrorists struck Sept. 11, it was afternoon in the United Kingdom. Rob was working on his computer at school when some colleagues broke the news. “Everyone tried to go to the BBC website, but it was jammed. When we left, I met some friends in a pub; we were still unaware of the scale of what had happened. Every pub had the TV on and people just sat there gaping at the TV. It was really quite surreal.” Immediately after Sept. 11, Rob wrote a condolence letter on behalf of his local Green Party to the U.S. ambassador in the United Kingdom. Below is a speech he gave Oct. 4 during a “Peace Not War” meeting in the Hampstead Town Hall.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is an extremely difficult time for us all, difficult to concentrate, difficult to focus, difficult to look forward. We look back to the events of September 11th. Events of barbarity. A cruel and merciless act of pre-meditated violence. The loss of innocent life overwhelms us all. It left us all with an overpowering sense of our own vulnerability, nay, immortality. What could we, as individuals, do in a World seemingly spiraling out of control, a World, as the Diggers stated in the 17th Century, turned upside down. Immediately after the attack, Camden Green Party wrote to the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom condemning the attack, expressing our sorrow for the victims and offering our solidarity at this time of crisis. A trifle, a tiny gesture, but something, anything, a piece of action, rather than passive acceptance. We were pleased to receive a letter of thanks from the Ambassador this week, and we intend to maintain this dialogue over the coming months.
We must remember, however, that in the face of evil, good springs forth. If we look at the events of the last few weeks, which images remain with us? For me, it is the emergency workers, public servants, firemen dutifully entering burning buildings to save life, ambulance workers battling against the odds to save life on the scene, police trying to control the situation and prevent further loss of life. Healing, restoring and saving life. There are the images of people across the World, giving blood, donating money, sending gifts. I saw firemen shaking collecting tins in Camden last week for their comrades across the Atlantic. Local schools, local newspapers, ordinary people around Camden have responded in a similar manner. We all saw Yasser Arafat, a man who leads a people whose freedom and progress has been shamefully hindered by the actions of successive US Governments, giving blood for the wounded of New York. We have seen basic but genuine acts of human altruism, decency, kindness. Simple but moving acts. We have seen the beauty of mankind emerge from the shadows of darkness.
There are two other phenomena that I think have emerged over the last few weeks. First, we have seen the marginalisation of extremists Worldwide. In this Country, Muslim leaders were swift to condemn the attack. Margaret Thatcher, who disgracefully attacked the Muslim Community yesterday in The Times, has thankfully been silenced, not only by her opponents but by people in her own Party. States and organisations that support terror and violence are being called to account for their actions. I hope that this will be a long-term process, even a process of purification, where we can not only shine the torch of enquiry at other States but look at ourselves, our own Government’s actions. I hope the American people will similarly look at their own Government’s action in this regard.
Indeed the second phenomena I would like to talk about is that of introspection, a mass introspection on both an individual and collective level, one that has occurred Worldwide since September 11th. Some of my friends in the USA have sent me e-mails saying: “Why do people hate us?”; “ What have we done to deserve this?” Let us not forget that America’s roots are on British soil. Not only do we share history, language and degrees of culture, but London and New York – New Yorkers and Londoners – we share more than probably any other two major Cities in the World. Tall buildings, raging traffic, stressful lives, exciting lives, the North Atlantic climate. We can identify with the people, with the context of this terrible tragedy. Many here in London have asked: “Could we be next?”; “Will I be coming home from work tomorrow?” This introspection, I say, is a positive, not a negative phenomenon. Having witnessed the fragility of life, many are actively contemplating the re-prioritisation of their own lives. Work and money are being replaced by family, friends, concern for others, concern for the actions of Government.
What I am saying is that one act of evil on September 11th has been superseded by multitude acts of good in the aftermath. An unprecedented level of concern, of care, of solidarity, emerging from the most unlikely of places and individuals. My generation obviously does not remember the Blitz, or the Battle of Britain. We have seen the films, we have heard the stories from our Grandparents and Parents, we can imagine. Bombs, death, fire, uncertainty, and the prospect of invasion. But we can now briefly understand how people talk nostalgically about that period, how the supremacy of the human spirit triumphed in adversity through solidarity, through co-operation, through a common bond. It was that triumph in adversity that led to the building of a “land fit for heroes,” universal health care, pensions, support for the poor.
Ladies and Gentleman, I believe we have, at this exact point in time, similar foundations to build a real fair and just New World Order. However, I must say, that we are at risk of losing this goodwill, this solidarity, should we engage ourselves in a vast and indiscriminate military action against the people of Afghanistan. Bombs do not build, they destroy. The people of Afghanistan are starving and oppressed; we should not risk making their situation worse than it is.
I believe it is up to us here in the developed World to show the rest of the World by setting an example, by helping to build a new set of values, to ensure global justice. This must be done in a clear and consistent manner with probity and integrity. The question is, how do we do this? I will tell you what we in the Green Party would like to see, our route to a positive future.
To begin, we would like to see a much stricter regulation of the arms trade. The Labour Party came to power on the promise of an “ethical foreign policy.” What has this meant in reality? Selling Hawk fighter planes to the Indonesian Government to be used against defenceless civilians in East Timor. We have done the same to Israel, keeping its military machine ticking over in its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. The list is endless – Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, etc. Like the United States, we have armed monsters, bankrolled them, trained them. We have created monsters. However, as we painfully discovered on September 11th, monsters can be unpredictable creatures, they can return to haunt us. We have to stop financing these people, supporting them, be clear and consistent in our dealings with other nations.
There are other measures I would like to see to ensure global justice. For example, a ratification of the International Land Mine Treaty. I would like the US Government in particular to re-engage in global processes. They, alone of the major democratic nations, refused to ratify the International Criminal Court proposed by the Rome Statute in 1998. They pulled out of the Kyoto agreement, unprepared or unwilling to acknowledge their huge environmental footprint that literally is endangering the lives of millions of people living in low-lying areas at risk of flooding from sea-level rises due to global warming. Instead, the US Government unilaterally decides to embark on “New Missile Defence” (NMD) in the process, further alienating Nations such as Russia and China and risking another arms race. Let us not forget that despite its overall wealth, there are great problems of poverty, of racism, of inequality within the United States. How many Black Kids in America could be sent to University for the price of NMD? I urge the US Government to reconsider its isolationist policy. The American Government and its citizens are now agonisingly aware that we live in a globalised World, where time, place and space are all inter-connecting to render geography meaningless. America has seen how the World has reacted to its tragedy. We must all now endeavour to ensure that we do our best to ensure there are no more tragedies, be they acute, like the events of September 11th, or chronic, such as the continual suffering of the Palestinian people in the Middle East.
I have stated that we need to build on this goodwill that is so evident today to establish a new set of values. We have now seen the foolishness of supporting extremists, of saying that our enemy’s enemy is a friend. We can all reel off the list of countries and people who have suffered from this perverse policy … Palestinians, Nicaraguans, El Salvadoreans. We can discuss ad infinitum cases in Africa and South America. Added to the list of sufferers now, of course, are the 5000+ people who died on September 11th. Because, as painful as it may be to consider, we must not forget that the CIA bankrolled and supported the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan when it conducted a merciless Jihad against the Russians. But that is all in the past. Now we must look to the future, and it is with increasing alarm that we seem now to be repeating that disastrous proverb, “our enemy’s enemy is a friend.” We are uncritically embracing Countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Countries with appalling human rights records. We are more or less giving Russia free reign in Chechnya and China free reign in Xin-Yang to do what they will. There is a small glimmer of hope in the Middle East, where the American Government, as much through realpolitik as through sincere concern, has told the Israelis to stop abusing the current international climate to crack down on the Palestinians. Of course we will never be satisfied there until we see the implementation of UN resolutions 242 and 338, Israeli withdrawal and the creation of a Palestinian State.
Ladies and Gentleman, whether we like it or not, the United Kingdom is a powerful Nation. We are the fourth largest economy in the World, we are a nuclear power, and we hold a seat on the UN Security Council. We must continue to argue that we use that power for good. Of course, every individual and small group can do their bit for ensuring a just World order, but we must urge our Government, if we are to flex our muscles now, if we are to demonstrate our power, that we should use it primarily to deliver food, to deliver aid, to deliver kindness and justice to the rest of the World. Bombs do not create, they destroy. Let us build on the goodwill created since September 11th to create a humane and meaningful New World Order.
Note: Three days after this meeting, the US and UK military launched a sea and air bombardment on Afghanistan