It does not matter how many times one has read about the atrocities committed by assassins like Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin and Pol Pot. It does not matter how many times one has heard stories of unspeakable crimes or barbaric acts.
It does not even matter if, like me, your own country has been at war as long as you have been alive.
Nothing prepares you to eyewitness a horrendous criminal act, live on television and the Internet.
That's what happened to me on Sept. 11. I could not believe what I saw happening in New York City and Washington, D.C. In the subsequent days, as the shock has subsided, it has occurred to me that the attack against the United States is what terrorism is all about: an attack on civilization.
Through fear and instability, terrorism undermines the values that make civilized life possible. It destroys trust, peace, trade, law and freedom. Civilization is under attack. My first thought on Sept. 11 was for the thousands of people in the twin towers and the loss of life. But that was soon followed by a deep feeling of sadness for the trade center itself. The World Trade Center was a magnificent example of architecture and human ingenuity, but as a symbol of trade, it was also an icon for peace and civilization.
For the entire 36 years of my life, my country, Guatemala, lived a low intensity war — a conflict between Marxist-Leninist guerrillas and the government in which terrorism played an important and evil role.
Our own twin towers were bombed twice, in the early Eighties. One night, eight bombs exploded in Guatemala City. On another evening I was stopped, along with thousands of Guatemalans, on my way home — no explanation, just uncertainty and fear. In the country, bridges and electric towers were bombed constantly. The residents of towns in the mountains were trapped between both sides of the conflict; sometimes participating willingly, but most of the time forced to choose sides. Fear was everywhere, in one way or another.
At the end of this long struggle, Guatemalan society was left morally, politically and economically exhausted. That is the toll of terror, and dealing with it is extremely difficult for both authorities and the people who live through it. How can one defend peace and civilization when dealing with an enemy who absolutely disregards human life? How can you fight the beast without becoming one?
If the American people are to engage in a war against the brutal terrorists of Sept. 11, they may want to keep in mind these words from James Madison: Of all the enemies to liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.
Americans should also know that terrorism is founded in a profound hatred against individualism, reason, freedom, capitalism, technology, the rule of law, and many other values held by the people of the United States.
No individual, and certainly no society, survives terrorism and war undamaged. But how can your blood not boil when the values that you hold most dear are under attack? How can you not take sides when your life, freedom and property are being assaulted? This is what we struggled with in Guatemala for 36 years, and this is now, unfortunately, the struggle of the American people.
Luis Figueroa is an Op-Ed writer for Guatemala´s daily newspaper Siglo Veintiuno and a former Hubert Humphrey Fellow at the University of Maryland at College Park.
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