"Children are the living message we send to a time we will not see." (Neil Postman, 1982) What message do we want to send: hate or peace?

The Chancellor of The New York State University System published my essay 10 years ago. Here it is, edited to fit my commitment to keep my posts “short.”

I write this essay about the terrorist assault on September 11, 2001 not as a sociologist trained in objectively examining causes and consequences of human behavior, but from the heart of a human whose sense of comfort has been unraveled, whose complacency has been shattered.  While my discipline informs me, my heart leads me.

 Terrorism is an act of hatred, at the bottom of which is fear.  Certainly terrorism is not the only evidence of hatred or fear in humankind.  Hate crimes, domestic violence, and substance abuse are all examples of hatred in our world, our country, our families, and, indeed, ourselves. 

What causes this hatred, this fear?  My answer is neither complex nor profound, but the implications of acting upon it are both exceedingly complex and immeasurably profound. 

At the root of heinous acts of violence like the terrorist attack, I believe, is the propensity to focus on the differences between us, thus obscuring the commonalities among us. 

By focusing on our differences, we see ourselves as separate from others.  If the differences were only just that—differences—then little harm would come of it.  The variety of human form and expression makes life interesting and exciting.  Our differences are not always, however, seen as positive; they can be (and are) used against us.  We see the “other” as “lesser.”  Terrorists vilify their victims–they are no more than expendable “targets” rather than thinking, feeling people.

If we choose to focus on our differences in gender, race, age, religion, sexual preference, social class, weight, or other characteristics, we can rationalize hate or fear.  Yet if we choose to see the common needs and struggles for all humans, it is harder to hate. Empathy replaces fear.  If you are like me, then how can I hurt you?  It would be like hurting myself. 

The next logical question is: why do humans tend to focus on differences rather than similarities?  My sociological training points me to culture.  We learn to think of ourselves as separate from others by being taught about differences rather than similarities.  Of course, the alternative explanation is that focusing on differences is in our genetics—that nature created us this way.  Perhaps it is a survival instinct.

Whether the answer is “my culture made me do it” or “I can’t help it because it is instinctual,” we run the danger of giving up because we believe that “forces beyond our control” are at work.  Yet, humans defy their “natural instincts” by eating too much or too little food and purposefully engaging in life-threatening behavior. As for culture, who creates culture?  People do, of course.  Because human create culture, humans can change culture.

The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 changed me.  I thought about life and choices in a way I had never imagined.  Rather than feeling different from the rest of the world, I felt for the first time that, as a U.S. citizen, I was no different than anyone else in the world.  We are all vulnerable; our suffering and our fears are shared. In this attack, the human carnage was enormous in such a short span of time, but no more painful to the victims than other more isolated, yet ongoing, atrocities inside and outside of our nation.  Our world is filled with hatred and fear because humans harbor hatred and fear. Why? Because, at least in some part, we see “others” rather than “humans.”

Where does this leave us?  Whether we speak of changing our nature or changing our culture, it all comes down to individual choice. I can choose to react in anger against “them” who hurt “us.”  Or I can choose to work toward creating a cultural shift toward peace, starting with me.  In my professional and personal life I can look beneath the differences I have been trained to see and search for the common bonds that link all humans with each other. 

I realize that this is risky business.  This means changing the rules with which everyone is so comfortable.  It means being patient and vigilant.  While I am promoting the common human experience, there will still be those seeking revenge against the “evil others” and I may become a target for their hatred.  But is it any less risky to march ahead on this very familiar path of “us vs. them” and the fear and hatred that results? 

In my mind, we are all victims when we choose hatred over peace. When fear of our differences hardens us, we fail to recognize our unity and deny our rich, wondrous diversity.