Learning from 9/11

Ten years ago today, the sky was a brilliant clear blue over Cambridge Massachusetts where I sat in an early morning class. It was clear and beautiful over Manhattan too that morning. The day would not be remembered as beautiful, however.

I was listening - unenthusiastically - to a professor lecture on finance. It began as a day like any other. I had my lap-top open and - given the uninspiring topic - I didn’t mind getting the occasional email or other electronic message. That’s when a friend sent an instant message "have you heard what’s happened in New York?" A minute later, I had at least an initial picture of the attacks we now know simply as 9/11.

It was no longer a day like any other.

Moments like these become etched permanently in our memories. You may remember the moment you heard about the attacks of 9/11. Perhaps the news of the subsequent events of 11 July 2005 represents a traumatic moment that you cannot forget.

I recall saying aloud “things will never be the same again.” I was hardly alone in that. Anyone could guess that a conservative US government would react violently, militarily, to these events. Anyone could guess that a conservative US politics would not find a way to turn this event toward peace, but rather turn its people toward anger, hatred, and vengeance. The day after the attacks, Rabbi Michael Lerner offered these all too accurate predictions:

“Demagogues will try to direct that anger at various "target groups" [...] The militarists will use this as a moment to call for increased defense spending at the expense of the needy. The right wing may even seek to limit civil liberties. President Bush will feel pressure to look "decisive" and take "strong" action--phrases that can be manipulated toward irrational responses to an irrational attack.”

The 9/11 attacks constituted a watershed moment in Western history. Until then, Muslims were people who lived in a dangerous part of the world that happened to have lots of the oil that the west needed. Certainly, the west did not think of the Muslim world as a danger to us at home. They were an inconvenience and perhaps an opportunity, but not a real threat.

9/11 changed all that. 9/11 was the moment that “they” – those others - went from being odd to being the evil ones.

9/11 was the moment that catalyzed an international effort and perspective that has been called "the war on terror." Subsequent attacks - in Spain in 2004, here in London in 2005, and more only reinforced that world view and strengthened the will to prosecute that war.

How I wish we were engaged in a true war on terror. There is far, far too much terror in the world. So many human beings must live each day with incapacitating fear. We are afraid of poverty-driven crime. We are afraid of drug-driven violence. We are afraid of dying alone. We are afraid our children will not get a chance in the world. There are many who live every day with the fear of starvation or torture or falling bombs. We live with terror. Imagine what a real war on terror would look like?

It might begin with the launch of a massive volley of funds toward the target of education. We might follow that with a ground assault of aid to ensure that no one has to live with the risk of starvation. It would include snipers of peace eliminating nuclear weapons, and an air campaign of creative interaction and understanding to develop and implement peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. It would use remote controlled drone attacks of technology and regulation to control global climate change, and a full frontal diplomatic assault to remove tyrannical, oppressive regimes. It would drop bombs of love to counter hateful racism, able-ism, heterosexism, and ageism.

The so-called war on terror is not what it says on the tin. It is a war against the people that we call terrorists. And those people are almost exclusively Muslim.

What is a terrorist? What is terrorism? Dispassionately, terrorism is an attack on civilians intended to create terror and resignation to force an enemy to change in some way. Terrorism is what the rules of war between states forbids. War is supposed to be conducted cleanly and fairly, with attacks made only on combatants and other military infrastructure.

But, in the real world we do not use the words terrorism and terrorist even-handedly and dispassionately. We use these words to describe the people engaged in battle against us who lack the ability to fight a symmetric war. And we use these words to create within our own population fear, anger, and yes, terror.

Why do we call it terrorism when it’s committed by Muslims but when a right wing Norwegian massacres nearly 80 people - most of them children - we call it insanity? When a gunman fired upon worshipers in an American Unitarian church, it is insanity. In the many other acts of hateful violence committed by Christians and other non-Muslims, the word “terrorism” is hardly mentioned. This is not a war on terror or even a war on terrorism. It is a war against the people we fear and have been urged to demonize.

The 9/11 attacks were followed by a politically-motivated effort to convince us that the world is cleanly divided into the good and the evil. This narrative suggests the presence of a growing global battle between Islam and the west - a war that threatens our very existence.

My colleague, Tom Schade, writes that the world needs a different perspective and a different narrative:

“The Liberal Religious view [...] sees 9/11, 2001 as one retrograde step in what is otherwise a process by which the religions of the world are accommodating themselves to each other, recognizing in each other the same universal human religious impulses. We see the future not as a clash of civilizations, not as an Armageddon, not as a final battle for God. We see a future of peace, cooperation and diversity. We see that future coming into being right now”

The future - our future and our children’s future depends on the world view we hold and the stories we tell. It depends on what we believe.

A future of peace depends on the work we do today. It depends on the work of protest, the work of resistance, the work to build understanding, and the work of speaking out in the public square to share a different perspective.

The future depends on people who have and can hold onto a loving, liberal faith. That faith urges away from vengeance, away from anger, away from violence.

In the context of the struggle for racial equality, Martin Luther King spoke about the extremism of racial hatred. His words are equally applicable today and call us to a different path in response to violence.

“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extremists of justice.”

Imagine becoming extremists for love. Imagine a very different response to the 9/11 attacks. Simon Critchley writing in the New York Times recently asks us to consider what might have happened if we had turned to peace rather than vengeance after 9/11.

“what if nothing had happened after 9/11? No revenge, no retribution, no failed surgical strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, no poorly planned bloody fiasco in Iraq, no surges and no insurgencies to surge against; nothing.

What if [we] had simply decided to turn the other cheek and forgive those who sought to attack [us], ...? What if the grief and mourning that followed 9/11 were allowed to foster a nonviolent ethics of compassion rather than a violent politics of revenge and retribution? What if the crime of the Sept. 11 attacks had led not to an unending war on terror, but the cultivation of a practice of peace — a difficult, fraught and ever-compromised endeavor, but perhaps worth the attempt?”

What if, my friends, the attacks of 9/11 and those that came after had led us to launch a true war on terror?

What if we attack our fears through peace and understanding and love? What if we truly direct all of our efforts to creating a world without terror?

We close with these words of unknown origin:

I am afraid of nearly everything:

of darkness,



children mutilated.

But most of all, I am afraid of what I might become:

reconciled to injustice,

resigned to fear and despair,

lulled into a life of apathy.

Unchain my hope, make me strong.

Stretch me towards the impossible, that I may work for what ought to be: the hungry fed,

the enslaved freed,

the suffering comforted,

the peace accomplished.

May it be so.