The Common Good

Reflecting on Our Response to 9/11

Seven years ago this morning, airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania. The next day I joined with a few others to draft the following statement. In a few weeks, more than 4,000 of America's religious leaders of all faiths had signed it and it was printed as an ad in The New York Times.

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Seven years later, as we remember that day, it is appropriate to reflect on this statement and to wonder how the world would be different if its counsel had been heeded.

We "demand[ed] that those responsible for these utterly evil acts be found and brought to justice. Those culpable must not escape accountability." Yet after seven years of war in Afghanistan, we are still engaged against a resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden has still not been found. Then, 9/11 was used as a rationale to invade and occupy Iraq, a conflict that has now taken the lives of more than 4,000 American troops and countless Iraqis. Rather than "the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions," we have seen the erosion of our civil liberties, torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and indefinite detentions without trial.

Today on this anniversary, let us pause to remember those who died, to reflect on what has happened since, and once again, "Let us rededicate ourselves to global peace, human dignity, and the eradication of the injustice that breeds rage and vengeance." We offered a different way to deny the terrorists their victory, which, I believe, could still be followed. It's not too late to change our course. Please read and reflect upon the original statement.

DENY THEM THEIR VICTORY: A RELIGIOUS RESPONSE TO TERRORISM

We, American religious leaders, share the broken hearts of our fellow citizens. The worst terrorist attack in history that assaulted New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania has been felt in every American community. Each life lost was of unique and sacred value in the eyes of God, and the connections Americans feel to those lives run very deep. In the face of such a cruel catastrophe, it is a time to look to God and to each other for the strength we need and the response we will make. We must dig deep to the roots of our faith for sustenance, solace and wisdom.

First, we must find a word of consolation for the untold pain and suffering of our people. Our congregations will offer their practical and pastoral resources to bind up the wounds of the nation. We can become safe places to weep and secure places to begin rebuilding our shattered lives and communities. Our houses of worship should become public arenas for common prayer, community discussion, eventual healing, and forgiveness.

Second, we offer a word of sober restraint as our nation discerns what its response will be. We share the deep anger toward those who so callously and massively destroy innocent lives, no matter what the grievances or injustices invoked. In the name of God, we too demand that those responsible for these utterly evil acts be found and brought to justice. Those culpable must not escape accountability. But we must not, out of anger and vengeance, indiscriminately retaliate in ways that bring on even more loss of innocent life. We pray that President Bush and members of Congress will seek the wisdom of God as they decide upon the appropriate response.

Third, we face deep and profound questions of what this attack on America will do to us as a nation. The terrorists have offered us a stark view of the world they would create, where the remedy to every human grievance and injustice is a resort to the random and cowardly violence of revenge -- even against the most innocent. Having taken thousands of our lives, attacked our national symbols, forced our political leaders to flee their chambers of governance, disrupted our work and families, and struck fear into the hearts of our children, the terrorists must feel victorious.

But we can deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image. Terrorism inflicts not only death and destruction but also emotional oppression to further its aims. We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to be. We assert the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions. America must be a safe place for all our citizens in all their diversity. It is especially important that our citizens who share national origins, ethnicity, or religion with whoever attacked us are, themselves, protected among us.

Our American illusion of invulnerability has been shattered. From now on, we will look at the world in a different way, and this attack on our life as a nation will become a test of our national character. Let us make the right choices in this crisis -- to pray, act, and unite against the bitter fruits of division, hatred and violence. Let us rededicate ourselves to global peace, human dignity, and the eradication of the injustice that breeds rage and vengeance.

As we gather in our houses of worship, let us begin a process of seeking the healing and grace of God.

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