Studs Terkel
in The Guardian
Friday September 14, 2001

Guardian online version of this article (as long as it's archived there!)


Chicagoan Studs Terkel, US citizen, 85-year-old historian, writer and broadcaster, recipient of the (US) National Medal of the Arts, Pulitzer prizewinner, early champion of Woody Guthrie, Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy and others (more information) was recently interviewed by Peter Lennon. He had the following to say about the atrocious events of Tuesday 11 September 2001.

That w
hich is called the impregnable Fortress America has been touched, and all the commentators and pundits are saying: "How dare they do it?" Now, in the midst of all the grief, unless we do what teacher says - put our thinking caps on - we won't understand. Einstein said that ever since the atom was split, the world has changed irrevocably except the way we think. Now we must think anew.

Peace is indivisible, the world is one and we are not the invincible guardians of the world we once were. For the first time we have been touched, and other people have been touched in different ways. Unless we learn what it is to be that bombed child, wherever that place is - whether it be Vietnam or Iraq or wherever - we have learned nothing.

Since the end of the second world war we have had 15 military adventures elsewhere. Our adventures were Vietnam, Iraq, Grenada - God help us! But these wars have been elsewhere. For the first time since the second world war, we have been affected, tragically and horribly. What have we learned?

FDR, back in 1936 during the great depression, with one-third of a nation ill-fed, ill clothed, in poor health - that munificent big government saved our society. Our new religion is the free market - well, the free market in the 20s slipped on a banana peel and fell on its ass. I did a book on the depression, and I asked a prototype of Alan Greenspan, a top executive in the banking world: "What happened?" He said: "We don't know." We looked for some kind of announcement - the answer came from the government. Those who most condemn the government today - their asses were saved by big government. We are suffering what I call a national Alzheimer's disease. We have no memory of yesterday.

When it comes to this event - and it is all related, by the way - will we learn that we are now not invulnerable? Thus far, of course, there is hysteria in the air, and fury, and anger: no one has yet brought up the subject of the role we have played. There is an article in the current edition of Harper's in which we are compared to the Romans. But they did not pretend to do good, they were just conquerors. We are always doing good, we are always innocent. But we are always the ones looked on badly. Why? The question is: are we now thinking what has to be learned from this? I am on the air in a little while on public radio, and I may get into trouble too, telling them what I am saying. I have not heard one politician yet who said anything in the sense of what I am saying now. Not a one.

The second world war vets - well, you know how they are. Bernard Shaw said something on the lines of war being loved by old men as young men go to fight. But I think there is a feeling among younger people that maybe there is something else here to be learned. People have a hunger for a faith of some kind.

Before, in the cold war, it was communism. The Evil Empire is no more, so now it's terrorism. Now we come to the question: what is terrorism? But isn't dropping bombs on people you don't see and are told to do so for the sake of justice and honour - isn't that terrorism too? So that's the big question. Will we learn from this? I hope we will. But nothing of that sort has come through here.

We are part of this world, and as Martin Luther King said years ago, we live together as brothers or die together as fools. And this is precisely what Einstein was talking about. Have we learned this lesson? I don't know.

• Studs Terkel was talking to Peter Lennon. Terkel's latest book on Death will be published by Granta next month.

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