New U.S. Envoy Views the Tragedy from Abroad

James Nicholson at the Vatican

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 14, 2001 ( A day after having presented his credentials to John Paul II as the new U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, James Nicholson gave this interview to Vatican Radio´s Tracey McClure.

Below is an excerpt from the interview.

–Q: I think everyone here joins the Pope in expressing our heartfelt sorrow over the tragic loss of lives in Tuesday´s attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It must have been difficult for you, taking on a new job and watching these horrific events unfold from afar….

–Nicholson: Well, it´s difficult for all Americans, for all good-thinking people in the world, really, to contemplate these horrific acts that have been perpetrated against innocent, free people. … That was the first thing we discussed yesterday at Castel Gandolfo, when I presented my credentials to His Holiness, Pope John Paul Il. …

He expressed his sorrow for the people of America, for the victims. … We talked about the fact that we need the solidarity that is developing around the world to put an end to these kinds of mindless, cowardly, barbaric acts.

Q: Now today, President George Bush has instated a day of remembrance for the victims, a day of prayer. We here in Europe and at Vatican Radio will be observing three minutes of silence for the victims and their families. What other initiatives, what comments do you have on this particular day?

Nicholson: Well, President Bush has a tremendous job in trying to keep the morale of the American people together, [to] ensure that we stay together as a people, and that we don´t let something like this destroy our will to go forward as a free society and one´s that an advocate freedom for all societies. …

Yet, an event like this that has befallen our people right there in the center of capitalism, … in the center of our government, is a horrific occasion and calls for tremendous leadership, and President Bush is providing that.

And he is also a very spiritual man, a man who prays every day, and that is sustaining him and he is manifesting that … we need to all pray at a time like this, and this day of prayer and remembrance, I think, is so appropriate. I´m so happy that he´s doing this.

Q: In his address to you yesterday, Pope John Paul several times referred to our country´s national heritage: of solidarity, cooperation between peoples, respect for human rights, much of which we´ve been seeing throughout the rescue and relief operations over the past few days. The kind of solidarity with which I think you, yourself, are personally familiar.

Nicholson: Yes, as I said, the first thing that the Pope and I talked about yesterday in Castel Gandolfo was this act that has befallen our country and thus, really, the world — because if it can happen in the United States, it can happen anywhere. …

I´ve had many personal experiences: as an army officer I served a year in Vietnam in combat, and I´ve seen others, you know, these heinous acts that seem to occur — but nothing on a scale of this. …

It is also, though, very gratifying: I´ve gotten scores of telegrams, and letters and telephone calls from ambassadors from other countries around the world, expressing their solidarity, their offer of help, and I´m very appreciative for this and I´m passing them on to the president so he knows what I am seeing and hearing from fellow ambassadors from other countries.

Q: In condemning the attacks, Pope John Paul prayed that they — and I quote — «will awaken in the hearts of all the world´s peoples a firm resolve to reject the ways of violence, to combat everything that sows hatred and division within the human family, and to work for a new era of international cooperation.» It seems clear that the United States will pursue a retaliatory course of action which it feels is justified by the heinousness of the attacks. Yet, the Pope is urging the American people to a greater challenge: to exercise restraint and what he called their country´s «moral leadership and vision» in handing down justice. Is it too late for the kind of peace and justice that Pope John Paul is talking about?

Nicholson: Not at all. The Pope said that this was a terrible affront to human dignity, and it is. And when something like that occurs, we have a responsibility to see that it doesn´t occur again, that we can root out this effrontery to human dignity and that takes a system of due process. It has to be done within the law.

We ourselves cannot become barbaric about this. But we have to take steps aggressively to find out who did this, to find out who is so demented that they would wreak this kind of terror on other fellow human beings, and put an end to that system that is supporting this … in the context, of course, of justice … in a commitment to find them and bring them to a court of justice.

Q: The Pope seems to feel that any military retaliation that would injure or kill people — civilians or not — would lead to a general deterioration of violence everywhere in what he describes a «spiral of violence.» What do you think?

Nicholson: Well, I don´t know. I don´t think the Pope would disagree with the fact that people who do something like this need to be brought to justice, need to be contained and separated from the rest of society.

And I think that´s how we do put an end to this spiral …: We find the people that support these mindless, cowardly kind of acts, and stop them.

Q: Do you think by describing these attacks as war that that might bring the retaliation into a greater realm of retaliation?

Nicholson: Well, it is war. In the Vietnam War, I think, the United States had about 52,000 deaths. … In a few hours in the U.S. we had several thousand deaths, … an untold number of people that were injured and maimed for the rest of their life, burned, blinded.

And so, you know, countries have a right and a responsibility to defend themselves, and we will do that. But we will do that in the way that America does … in the context of our Constitution, in our rule of law, and it will not be on the barbaric level of those who attacked us.

Q: Pope John Paul also reiterated to you his hope that the United States would continue and strengthen its efforts to promote realistic dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis to bring a lasting peace to that region. What will happen next?

Nicholson: It is hard to say. The United States has been working a long time in trying to bring peace to the Middle East and we won´t give up. We don´t give up as a people. We can´t give up — it´s too important — but where the answer lies, I don´t know.

I don´t know anybody who does know. I know that we have to continue to work and hope and pray we can bring an end to that conflict there.

Q: The U.S. in this case has also urged Israeli to exercise restraint in its retaliation against Palestinians for acts of terror. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, will the U.S. act differently?

Nicholson: Well, as I said, the U.S. is going to be aggressive in trying to find out who it is attacked us, who perpetrated this act of war, and I agree with President Bush when he captions it that way.

That is logical that you do that if you want to maintain your own society in freedom, and protection of your own people. You have to find out who it is who attacked you and then take acts to protect yourself. And I think everybody has a right to do that.

Q: You know, watching reactions to the events of the last few days, I have to say that as an American living abroad, I see my fellow Americans at home as sometimes being ingenuous. The average Joe on the street doesn´t seem to know that there are a lot of people out there, particularly in the developing world, who aren´t just fed up with us — they hate us. They accuse us of meddling in other
countries´ affairs — from covert military operations, to waging wars, to tip the balance of regional power, imperialism, imposing our way of life on others. Is it time we had a collective examination of conscience? What´s gone wrong here?

Nicholson: Well, first of all, I don´t think the people of America are ingenuous. I think sometimes we get a little too comfortable and apathetic, maybe take a lot of our freedoms and our system for granted. …

I think because we are such a big country and have so many God-given natural resources and, I think, have done a good job in developing them — I think we are a cause of some envy sometimes, and some bitterness and some resentment that goes with being big and powerful, but also what goes with that is a responsibility to help others and to protect others.

And I´m quite proud of the record of our country in the protection and ultimate liberation that it has provided to other countries around the world as a result of wars and so forth — and the way our country has come together in times of crisis. And I´m confident that we will do that again.

Q: What positive things do you think will come out of the physical and emotional devastation wrought by the attacks? Will there be a spiritual renewal among Americans?

Nicholson: Well, first and foremost, it is so important at this time that we concentrate on the victims of this terrible tragedy, their safety, their welfare, those that are missing, the families of those people, the loved ones. And then later, there will be time to reflect on what, if any, redemptive value there was in something like this for our country and for the world.

And I suspect that there will be some, and that we may not take so many things for granted — that we will be grateful for all the freedom, and the health and the liberty that we have as a people.

But right now I really think that the emphasis needs to be, and is, on all those people that are affected by this.

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