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September 18, 2001
Somewhere between the school kids calling to bomb someone -- anyone -- and the usually moderate opinion maker warming to the prospect of nuclear war, a former hostage of Mideast terrorism came to town and pleaded for restraint.
And a lecture which, a week earlier, would have been a purely academic exercise for the students of a sprawling Boca Raton prep school full of Bentleys and BMWs, suddenly got personal.
"We have every reason to be terribly angry at these people. They have every need to be punished," former hostage Terry Anderson told a rapt St. Andrew's School audience about last week's terrorist attacks. "But forgiveness is a willingness not to hate."
He was talking about letting go of the anger inside you, not forgiving for the other person's sake. Coming from someone else, it might have sounded hokey. But if anyone's earned the right to say it, Anderson has.
In 1985, plucked at gunpoint off the streets of Beirut by Iranian militants, he was blindfolded, chained at his wrists and ankles, and smacked if he so much as moved or made a noise. Other hostages would later join him over his nearly seven years of captivity.
He was able to find a sliver of humanity in his captors when he finally broke the rules and spoke to one. "I told him I'm not an animal, I'm a man, I'm a human being, and I can't do this." Anderson then asked for a Bible and got one, along with a blanket to hide under.
He acknowledges that today's terrorists are different, though. "It used to be that terrorism had political aims, to accomplish something." Last week's destruction was just for the sake of destruction.
Anderson spoke on a brilliant Monday morning when a global terrorist threat seemed as remote a problem as snowstorms in South Florida. He spoke to people whose lives are light years from the Lebanese cells where he spent his captivity. Yet even students there have suffered losses. And even in that cocoon-like environment, some are angry and scared.
"We need a sense of encouragement to show our country can go on," said Becky Koslow, a senior.
Anderson tried to give them that: "I don't think those people who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center ever want to think about forgiveness. They're still grieving. But when we get through this first grief, we have to think about where it's taking us."
One place it must not take us, he warned, is into an anti-Arab or anti-Muslim backlash.
"I have Arab friends, and they're scared," said Anderson, whose wife is Lebanese. "I hope we have learned to be sophisticated enough to understand that the actions of madmen should not be held against the entire people."
These attacks can be prevented, he said. "We are a free and open society, and we will always be vulnerable to people with bombs. If we change that, they will have won."
Why the hatred of Americans, he was asked? "Part psychological, part historical. We've made some serious mistakes over there. I don't think the hatred is reasoned. It is a reaction to poverty and despair and the lack of a future."
Anderson's words, coming after the president primed the nation for war, coming from someone who has suffered from terrorism and survived, were a salve to students too young to have yet learned that life goes on.
"They did the worst they could possibly do to us," he told them, "but they have not changed this nation."
Roger Rush, a 12th-grader, heard other students last week calling for retaliatory bombings. He didn't feel good about it, even though his mother is a United Airlines flight attendant who knew others who were killed. "Most of the people talking about it didn't know what they were talking about."
In the days and weeks to follow, as the full extent of the loss becomes known, those revenge cries are sure to grow louder. And that worries this 12th-grader. "I hope that people realize that the terrorism was done by terrorists, and they're not representative of an entire group," he said, "and that anger doesn't have to explode out."
Rekha Basu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4508.
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel