VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 11, 2002 (Zenit.org).- In an interview over Vatican Radio, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, reflects on where his country is going, a year after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Nicholson and his wife attended today’s commemoration in the Vatican, presided over by John Paul II, for the victims of last year’s tragedy.
Q: On television and on the Internet over the last few days I think all of us have relived that tragedy and the heartbreak of Sept. 11. What memories come back to you most vividly?
Nicholson: One of them was my meeting with the Pope, which was two days after Sept. 11. I met with him on 9/13; he was still grief-stricken, as were we, as all the world.
He said to me that this was certainly not an attack on the United States — it was an attack on humanity. He recognized that we were going to have to take action to fulfill our obligations of self-defense, but asked that we adhere to the system of justice that we had become known for and I assured the Pope that we would and I would communicate that to the president, which I did — and we have done that.
The president has led extraordinarily in this matter. It wasn’t a hateful, revengeful speech that he gave to the American people. It was a speech asking them to pray, No. 1, and then lead them in a day of prayer in the Washington Cathedral. But he also said that you don’t get anywhere with revenge and hate; you can only progress as a society and as people in the world through understanding and hope and prayer.
He then went to the mosque and visited the mosque, and the point of it was he was leading and he was saying, This is not an attack on one society, against the U.S.; this is the act of a few isolated extremists who seem to have a pathological hatred of the West and of the U.S. We can’t react against a certain religion, a certain society.
Q: After the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans were asking themselves, “Why us?” Have they looked deeply for the answers to those questions?
Nicholson: There’s been a lot of introspection since then, of course, and there still is, it’s still going on.
But Americans found that they still possessed this innate sort of organic sense of patriotism and love of each other and love for freedom that you tend to take for granted on a daily basis and in your life, until something like this happens that threatens it.
And it has caused an enormous outpouring of cohesion in our country … and has also caused an increased awareness that this was not just an attack against the U.S., but that the whole world, the free world, people loving the civilization, the rule of law were threatened by this and that it takes only a small number of people to disrupt this freedom, this civilized life that people are enjoying and have taken for granted.
Q: Last week Pope John Paul met Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, Kathryn Colvin. Talking to her, he said in injustice and oppression, desperate people can take recourse to terrorism. He stressed that nothing could justify terrorism or violence, but that the “recruitment of terrorism is more easily achieved in areas where human rights are trampled upon.” It seems, though, that while we see a lot of money spent on war on terror, we’ve seen little in terms of investment in eradicating the desperation of many people John Paul II was talking about here. Should the U.S. be spearheading a change for creating international social justice?
Nicholson: The U.S is doing that. Take just Afghanistan, for example, which is a coalition effort of 90 some, with 20 different countries having military people engaged.
But we, the U.S. alone, have put $400 million into the reconstitution of the infrastructure of that country, starting very early with the schools in Afghanistan. … Certainly the U.S. has a very commendable record in trying to bring freedom, democracy, and hope and opportunity to people in the world.
This act on Sept. 11 was done by people who were quite well educated, who came from a middle-class background. It was more a reflection of another problem that is out there, which is happily only possessed by a relatively small number of people.
But this extraordinary hatred that they have for the West, for the U.S. and for Jews … it’s this we also need to work on, to eradicate, to try to change those hearts and minds, but at the same time to protect ourselves from them.
Q: Now, Osama bin Laden himself has tied the Sept. 11 attacks to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what he and many Arabs see as the U.S.’ one-sidedness on policy there. Can Washington exert greater pressure on both sides to reach peace?
Nicholson: Washington is certainly working feverishly to try to resolve this difficult situation in the Middle East. President Bush has stated unequivocally that we need to set up a Palestinian state. He’s asked even that we can have local elections in the Palestinian territories before the end of this year.
We’ve committed an enormous amount of money to try to rebuild this new society that would be the new Palestinian state out of the Marshall Plan. We’ve gotten commitments from other allies and friends to contribute to this endeavor so that the people there, one, they have a state, they have an autonomous identity, they have hope, they have a life, so to speak, as members of a burgeoning country.
That is our goal, shared by many of our allies, many of the international community. But you know it is not easy to get there. It is very intertwined. There is a lot of tradition, history that goes on there, but we are certainly working on it.
Q: Now attention is being focused on a possible war on Iraq, which Washington says is continuing to produce weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms. Europeans have generally been alarmed by the rhetoric — not convinced that Baghdad poses an immediate threat. Now President Bush is taking his case to the United Nations, where Thursday he’ll be presenting his reasons for military intervention in Iraq. What happens if he doesn’t get the support he wants? Will the U.S. go it alone?
Nicholson: I wouldn’t speculate on what would happen in a hypothetical sense. It’s clear the president is seeking the help of the international community, sharing the information that we have on Iraq, and that we’ve acquired with our intelligence assets.
But what is happening is that much greater dialogue and discourse on this is now ensuing, and if you note today, there is a report in the international press that comes out of an organization called the International Institute of Strategic Studies that confirms a great deal of what President Bush has been saying about the potential that Iraq has to wreak havoc not just on the United States but on many other countries, and that they may be within weeks of having a nuclear capability to go with their known capability of biological and chemical weapons.
So this is a very alarming new fact that has come on to the scene from a very prestigious third-party think tank. So what you’re seeing is a buildup of the case that this is a very dangerous situation, that something has to be done about it.
The president is going to give a major address at the U.N. in New York on Thursday. He’s going to lay out the case. He’s going to ask people to join us in a situation that nobody wishes were extant, but you can’t just put a blindfold on when you have something that is so ominous as that in the hands of a person that we know will use these weapons. He’s done it — he’s used them on his own people. He gassed 5,000 of his own people in one day.
Q: Many Americans would say they’re tired of being the world’s policeman. Is there any reason why the U.S. should be the one who is guaranteeing peace and democracy on a global scale?
Nicholson: The United States would certainly welcome th
e help in leadership of as many other countries as we can get.
You know, I’m the ambassador to the Holy See and I live in Italy and I see firsthand the press here and the reactions of the Italian leadership and I am happy to say that they’ve been quite supportive and very open-minded on this issue.
And the people of the United States are a peaceful people. They don’t like war. And the people who like war the least, by the way, are the people who have to fight it and I used to do that as an Army officer for eight years, so this certainly is not something that the U.S. is relishing. But you know as the Gospel says, “to whom much has been given, much is expected.”
We are a rich country, we are strong militarily, we are the champion of freedom in the world, and that gives us a certain responsibility and we know about this situation and we just can’t bury our head in the sand.
Q: You yourself are a very devout Catholic. Terror in the name of religion has been used to sow fear, division and hatred. What can we Christians do to promote greater understanding and tolerance among the people of this world?
Nicholson: Well, I’ve always been a very strong believer in the terrific power of prayer so we can pray — not just we Christians, but all people of God can pray for peace in the world, pray for reconciliation, pray that we don’t have an exchange of these weapons of mass destruction.
And we know that countries as strong as the Soviet Union with all those nuclear weapons can be converted into a relatively peaceful world player and contributor, which is quite extraordinary. So it can continue to work.
Q: Do you see that as a result of prayer?
Nicholson: Well, I don’t know. I think it was the result of a lot of things.
But I can remember as a boy, people ending the rosary and so forth saying, “Pray for peace in Russia.” But I think it was also the work of Ronald Reagan, making sure the United States and Western Europe were strongly armed; the Holy Father played a very important role I think in being very supportive of the United States and our rearming of Europe and sort of staring down the Russians and saying, “You’re not going to dominate us, you’re not going to buffalo us.”
We cherish our freedom and our democracy and we’re going to stand up for it. And I think we have to do the same thing with people like Saddam Hussein.