9/11 is embedded in American memory — like Dec. 7, a Day of Infamy. But what has disappeared from public consciousness, despite its having been momentous in its own right, is 9/12.

That was the day when, in all our unaccustomed vulnerability, we were suddenly the object of the world’s empathy. Messages of condolence streamed in from nearly every nation across the globe (save North Korea). Countries small and large who had envied or resented our power were suddenly willing to share our pain.

And then we sacrificed all of that good will in favor of a “War on Terror,” turning on a dime from grief to rage and acting on the latter. But along the way, we destroyed at least one country and destabilized the region, and it’s hard to make a case that any of that bought redemption for the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001.

As Israel suffered its own 9/11, President Biden, while providing all the moral, political, and military support he could, urged Israel not to make the mistakes we made when we were similarly attacked. His advice went unheeded, and Israel now finds itself condemned by friends and enemies alike. As was true for the United States in 2001, Israel has reacted to Hamas’s wanton, vicious attack with seemingly legitimate fury, but while such rage may provide momentary catharsis, it nearly always results in outsized destruction. The moral high ground on which Israel stood as victims on Oct. 7 has been lost not to Hamas but to the indiscriminate devastation wrought by Israel’s own bombs.

What if, on September 13, 2001, America had declined to be drawn into the very armed response Al Qaeda had surely hoped for and instead used the trillions we wasted on war to invest in the region’s welfare — a Marshall Plan for the Middle East? Wouldn’t we likely have had a good deal more success against terrorism than we in fact did? What if Israel had taken a breath, waited for its rage to dissipate, and adopted a more rational and visionary approach to the critical danger that nation faces?

Virtually all of the world’s religions preach love. It’s easy to love our friends, of course; the challenge is to love our enemies. Well, that may be all well and good for individuals, we’re told, but it’s different for nations. Really? Is anybody prepared to argue that the way we’re doing things is a better alternative, as 1200 Israelis lie dead, more than 120 hostages continue in captivity (as of this writing), and perhaps 12,000 Palestinians have been lost to “collateral damage”? Isn’t it time — in fact, long past time — to find a better way?

We could begin, not just in Israel and Gaza, but all over the world by treating one another not as friends or enemies but as the flawed human beings we all are. The only way we can become capable of committing atrocities against other human beings is to see them as less than human. Adolph Hitler called the Jews “vermin.” Rwandan Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches.” Americans referred to the Japanese as “Nips” and the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as “Gooks.” Donald Trump recently referred to Democrats as “vermin,” echoing Hitler. Reducing other human beings to such degrading epithets gives us permission to do whatever we want with them. But make no mistake: in so doing, we make ourselves inhuman, not them.

So this is a plea that in nations at war, in the houses of Congress, on campuses, in political debates, in the streets of our cities, in our courts and in our jails, in our financial dealings and in our civic life, in our neighborhoods and in our families we commit ourselves to discovering the humanity in one another, not just when it’s easy but, more crucially, when it’s difficult, painful, and seemingly impossible. That’s when it matters most.

The Rev. Frank C. Strasburger is a retired Episcopal priest and resident of Topsham. He is the former Episcopal chaplain at Princeton University.

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