On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked 4 commercial airliners and crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and an empty field in Pennsylvania. I was attending the Drugs Affecting Lipid Metabolism meeting in Manhattan along with 1600 other physicians and scientists. Over the past several days, I have tried to find some meaning in the events while sorting through the images and emotions: the initial disbelief of viewing on television the jet crash into the towers, the collapse of the building, the immediate fear and sense of chaos that more attacks were imminent, and the deep sadness for the massive loss of life.
When a call for help was made at the meeting, >2 busloads of physicians and nurses volunteered to go to the lower west side of Manhattan to provide help in any manner possible. As we sat around for hours that afternoon, it became apparent that this emergency station, which had been set up to handle an overflow of casualties, was not needed because there were few, if any, survivors. As we walked back to the hotels through the eerily quiet and empty streets of Manhattan, one could sense the sadness and the frustration of not being able to do anything to help.
As emotions turned from sadness to anger and thoughts of revenge and retaliation, other images surfaced in my mind. I thought of the volunteer physicians, nurses, and medical students, and I remembered the faces of men and women from all over the world, from every culture and religion—Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Buddhists—all volunteering to help. I thought of physicians and scientists who share a common enemy, disease, and who work together toward a common goal. As the news reporters discussed the cells of terrorists spread throughout the world, I thought of the treatment of cancer. My father was a head and neck cancer surgeon, and he would spend hours meticulously dissecting through healthy tissues attempting to preserve structure and function while isolating and destroying the cancerous tissue. Even if one is successful in destroying the cancer, however, one must address the risk factors that lead to it. I remember my father’s frustration as some of his patients resumed smoking through their tracheotomy after having their larynx removed because of cancer.
What then are the carcinogens that lead to the cancer of terrorism? Although this is far from my scientific studies, I believe that hatred, injustice, and intolerance are “carcinogens” that may transform an individual into a terrorist willing to commit suicide for a cause. If, in reaction to terrorism, we espouse hatred, intolerance, and prejudice toward ethnic and religious groups, then we will continue to create the environmental stimuli for a future generation of terrorists. In our training as physicians and scientists, we have had the opportunity to know and work with colleagues from many cultures and religions; we are obliged to share our knowledge and understanding, because these may well be the best antidotes to ignorance and intolerance.