BPD Update Online, Fall 2002
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by Ralph Holcomb, rjholcomb@stthomas.edu

It is the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Church bells, and ominously here in Minnesota civil defense sirens, sound in the morning air. A convocation homily offered up in the bright September sky exhorts us not to contemplate the new school year until we grieve with the families of the victims and with our wounded nation.

After the bells and after the words and the public mourning, the silence returns. The core of September 11 is silence: the silence felt by families who lost loved ones, the silence following a class's request for a context to help them understand the tragedy.

It is the silence of our enemy in his dedication to suicide and slaughter that we find most chilling. We are chilled by the calm implacability of a foe who will not engage us in dialogue but only plot and conspire to repeat these acts of violence. Those of us who make our living through words and teach that words can make a difference understand the fundamental importance of dialogue. And yet here is an Other who gives very little credence to words. Indeed, our enemy rejects as dangerous the symbols that words point to, destroying images and artifacts that might possibly threaten his beliefs. (Imagine a regime that uses dynamite on its national treasures and ball peen hammers on ancient artifacts preserved under glass in national museums.) The civilized dialogue is abandoned, and we lurch hellbent together into the dance of death, following the lead of those we despise, using the means of those who threaten us.

The history books will show that in response to the enemy's silence we exercised our enormous power to invade and violate, accomplishing by force what might have been accomplished through dialogue. As I write this our nation contemplates more violence in Iraq and elsewhere because we have lost the option to speak in measured tones to one another about our wounds. Marginalized populations remind us that dialogue and patience can be a tool used by the majority against the minority, but what other tools do we have once dialogue is abandoned? What good is action without the dialogue that follows action?

We social workers must lead by embracing the impossibility of the present situation: out of the silence we must somehow pursue dialogue. We must speak out in sympathetic tones even when we are punished by the enemy's silence, even when the one on the other side has the worst of intentions in mind, even as we face the wrong end of the knife or gun, even as we contemplate the next terrorist attack. We must continue our hope for dialogue, for understanding, for mutual learning even when there is no rational reason for hope.

The genius of social work is faith in innate goodness, patience, and the understanding that hope is sometimes rewarded, change does occur, and triumph is sometimes kindled out of nothing, or almost nothing. Individuals, families, communities and possibly whole nations can surprise us and change, even when there is no objective reason to believe change is possible.

Social workers must once again commit the crazy act of hope in the face of the insanity of terrorism. We must begin to speak into the darkness and across the silence to the Other we cannot see, fearful that we are merely speaking to ourselves. We speak, and live in the faith that someday we will hear a response from the blackness, something more than the echo of our own grief, on this day of grief.

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