By Frank Wessling
Ten years ago this Sunday we Americans were assaulted in a way that made us feel vulnerable in a new way.
We had always been able to think of the oceans on our East and West, the Atlantic and Pacific, as safety barriers between us and the rest of the world. Even 20th-century enemies were unable to overcome those vast distances and reach us.
What happened on Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that. On that day we felt in our bones the collapse of that distance; that old national security faith.
We all know the events themselves: how 19 Arabs hijacked four airliners, flew two of them into the twin World Trade Center towers in New York City, one into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and intended to crash the fourth into either the White House or the Capitol in Washington but failed because heroic passengers attacked their hijackers, with that plane crashing in rural Pennsylvania.
The twin towers burned so fiercely that they collapsed, taking nearly 2,800 innocent people’s lives. Another 184 were killed at the Pentagon.
And then our response. Many of us gathered in churches to pray. The nation seemed to unite in horror, but with sympathy and assistance for the immediate victims, in particular for the New York police officers and firefighters who died after bravely rushing in to help while the twin towers burned.
At the same time we struggled with a rush to judgment about Arab people among us and about the Islamic faith most profess. Could they, and it, be trusted? We saw pictures from Arab countries of mobs cheering and trampling the American flag. Was this the opening shot in a “clash of civilizations” led by suicide bombers?
Then we were led to think of the proper national response as war, specifically a “war on terrorism.” Our counterattack in this war began in Afghanistan, where we knew that Osama bin Laden, the inspiration behind 9/11, had established his base for a holy war against the United States through a network known as al-Qaeda. American military forces are still fighting and dying there, although bin Laden was found in neighboring Pakistan in May of this year and killed.
After 9/11 we were also led to believe that Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was developing weapons with which to threaten us. Despite appeals against war by Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders, we did invade and overrun Iraq in March of 2003, setting up an occupation that is only now coming to an end. No special weapons were ever found there.
As we remember those days, there is more to think and wonder about than the bare events. Was our “war” response the only, or best, way? Remembering should make us better, help in the way we dream and plan and work for a better future. How does our remembering of 9/11 make us better?
It should be very clear now that war in the sense of military action was, in fact, only a limited part of what we did after 9/11. The term was used primarily as political rhetoric in building support for decisive and quick action. Much of the action — perhaps ultimately the most effective — is better characterized as police work on an international scale: identifying, infiltrating and disrupting the communication systems of conspiracy groups; quieter and less colorful than shooting and bombing in a physical landscape.
This was “war” in a different way. Different, also, because the enemy, terrorism, is a fuzzy though frightening idea, not a physical place or people to be captured, killed or neutralized. But there is a people seemingly identified with terrorism against this country: Arabs and Muslims. Are they – with emphasis on the “they,” those aliens in looks and religion – out to kill the rest of us? Fortunately, national leaders were quick after 9/11 to speak well of Islam and its Arabic followers.
In the 10 years since those twin towers in New York collapsed in rubble we have learned to see more of the world in perspective, especially Arab peoples and the Islamic faith. Catholic Americans know how inaccurate it was to characterize us as a monolithic group, marching in lockstep. Now we also know better than before about the variety and tensions – and the grievances – within Islam. In knowing more, we fear less and are better able to be world citizens together – though this doesn’t happen without serious struggle for mutual compassion and understanding.
We have come a long and surprising way in that struggle since 9/11. For us as Catholics it all helps us toward the universalism in our name. The hostility, destruction and death that we commemorate this month can now be seen also as a shock that woke us up to unfinished business in a meeting — not necessarily a clash — of civilizations.