The Guardian
Tuesday September 18, 2001

Forgive but don't forget
There are only three possible endings to any story: revenge, tragedy, forgiveness. We need to forgive.

by Jeanette Winterson

What was passing through the minds of the great and the good as they prayed in St Paul's Cathedral last week, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"? Christians say their prayers, but do not mean them, unlike Muslim fundamentalists, who mean every word of their fervent cries to God for vengeance.

Vengeance is not at the heart of the Christian message - forgiveness is. I am not a Christian, but I am one of the faithful; that is, I believe in God as highest value, and I believe in a connection between all living things - humans, animals, and the land. God as highest value does not imply a literal being - we cannot know if God exists - but we can know what it is to want more than materialism and pragmatism. We can use the idea of God to hoist ourselves out of smallness.

We hate being small. We build tall towers, we send rockets to the moon. Our whole economy is predicated on growth. We want to be bigger, faster, stronger. America is proud to be the most powerful nation on earth.

But we are small. We live on a tiny planet in a corner of a vast galaxy starred about with infinite space. How can we measure ourselves against infinity? What is our history or our future, compared to the aeons of time that suspend us?

Strange, then, that smaller than small within it all, is the infinitesimal unit that is a single human being. A single human being, where, if we read the scriptures rightly, even God has his goal.

Touch me. Kiss me. Remind me what I am. Remind me that this life is the one we make together.

In the rubble of the twin towers, where pride has been dwarfed by hate, the smallness of what we are is too obvious. Whatever we do, it can be reduced to this. Whatever we build is temporary.

The Church has always used disaster to temper arrogance. Christian fundamentalists are wallowing in Armageddon. Doomsayers and pseudo-spiritual leaders are glad to see the world blow up, because it proves them right. Disaster is easier than healing. Misery is easier to manipulate than happiness. The Arab fundamentalists who wanted this to happen are joined by millions of others for whom terror is a relief. Terror means a police state, security, infiltration. Terror means a tightening of morality and an intolerance towards others. Terror means hitting back before we get hit again.

Make no mistake, plenty of people prefer the world as terror. The world as love is just too hard to take. Do Americans blame themselves for training up Bin Laden and the rest in a futile fight against Russia? Do they reflect on what they did to Afghanistan - a country that was slowly liberalising, before America used it as hard-line resistance to the Soviets?

Do we ask ourselves why we pay security guards so little that they can't be bothered to do their job? Do we wonder if capitalism and imperialism were the real co-pilots on those planes?

I am sick to the heart at a western world that will even consider bombing out desert people who are impoverished and illiterate. America talks about states that support terrorism, but these states are full of women and children, their animals, their livelihoods. Why should they be punished to maintain a world order in which they have no stake?

American and British foreign policy is not aimed at world peace; it is intended to enforce a particular kind of capitalism. We pay poor people no money in order to produce goods to support our lifestyle, and when some of those people come to hate everything that we stand for, we shout about wiping them out.

The planes did not fly into hospitals and schools - this was not the invasion of Iraq. The planes were out to destroy a prime symbol of western capitalism, with all that its free trade has meant to developing countries.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves why we are so hated. That they are fanatics and terrorists is not answer enough.

At the start of the 21st century, it might be possible for us to create a new kind of world. The sort of shock we are in now could jolt us out of our determination to squander every human and natural resource in the pursuit of money and power for some, poverty for most.

The west prides itself on its open democratic society, but if openness and democracy are what we value, then we need to export those values to countries that desperately need them. We will supply arms to anybody. Where is our support for those men and women who are trying to modernise their countries - to bring books and education and emancipation to people who live in fear of being flogged or killed?

The truth is that we would rather sell arms and trade oil and cheap goods with the bosses than help the ordinary people who need us. I'm not talking charity. I mean a whole new approach to how we deal with the third world.

We could start by not exploiting them.

We could give up the myth that the west is the good guy.

We could refuse foreign policy deliberately aimed at manipulating other countries for our own ends.

We could learn to forgive.

That might mean learning to say our prayers... You need not believe in God to believe in prayer. Which of us should not ask for forgiveness? Which of us should not ask for the strength to forgive others?

All the stories ever written tell us that there are only three possible endings. Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. None of us will forget the tragedy of the American people. It is our tragedy, too, because we made this world, because we live in it so badly.

In May 2000, I was in New York when I noticed the cover of Newsweek. Men and women were standing in the street, their faces twisted with grief and horror. I wondered what had happened to these people, so I bought the magazine, and discovered they were watching the Nasdaq fall.

I thought, real emotion should be saved for real things. Not money, but those we love.

Now it has happened.

The immensity of this event can only be mirrored in the immensity of what we are. This tiny blue planet is home to something special and precious - ourselves. We are all human. We are all nothing and everything. The best we can do to begin again is to forgive.

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