The Common Good

10 Years After 9/11: The Good and the Bad

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at home in Washington, D.C. getting ready to go to Sojourners' office. I was upstairs listening to the news on NPR when I heard the first confusing report of a plane crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center. I immediately called downstairs to Joy and asked her to turn on the television to see what was going on. Moments later, as we ate breakfast together with our three-year-old son Luke, we watched the second plane strike the north tower. I still remember my first response to Joy, "This is going to be bad, very bad," I said.

Of course, I meant more than just the damage to the Twin Towers and the lives lost, which became far greater than any of us imagined at first. Rather, my first and deepest concern was what something like this could do to our nation's soul. I was afraid of how America would respond to a terrorist attack of this scope.

But as the Towers collapsed, and the suffering of this horrible event became increasingly clear in the hours and days that followed, other parts of the American soul revealed themselves -- the heroic responses of the first responders, and a city and nation of people taking care of each other. As ordinary citizens gave their lives for strangers, they became our brothers' and sisters' keepers. In the days that followed the 9/11 attacks, the stories of pain, loss, and self-sacrifice brought Joy and me to tears several times. The suffering of many led to the service of many more.

For a moment, the world's last remaining superpower was vulnerable, and we all felt it. In Washington, people fled from downtown D.C., walking and running right past our house, and gathered to pray at places such as Sojourners' office. Joy helped Luke set up a little water station, as people frantically rushed by our house.

In our sudden sense of vulnerability we were now, and perhaps for the first time, like most of the world, where vulnerability is an accepted part of being human. And in those first days following 9/11, America, not the terrorists, had the high ground. The world did not identify with those who cruelly and murderously decided to take innocent lives in response to their grievances -- both real and imagined. Instead, the world identified with a suffering America -- even the front cover of the French newspaper Le Monde ran the headline, "We are all Americans now."

But it was Washington's response that I was most worried about. Within a short period of time, the official reaction to terrorism would simply be defined as war -- a decade of it -- resulting in many more innocent casualties than on September 11, 2001. In response to America's own suffering, many others in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world would now suffer -- all in the name of our war on terrorism. The opportunity for deeper understanding, reflection, and redirection would elude us as we sought to erase our vulnerability with the need to demonstrate our superior force and power. This was done quite easily in the early days of both our new wars. But now, we see that the longest series of wars in American history has failed to resolve or reverse the causes of the violence that struck us, or to make us safer. They just made it all worse.

The world expected and would have supported a focused and sustained effort to pursue and bring this small band of criminals to justice. But these last 10 years of manipulated and corrupted intelligence, endless war, practices and policies of torture, secret armies of assassination, global violations of human rights, indiscriminate violence with countless civilian casualties, and trillions of dollars wasted caused America to lose the high ground long ago. The arrogance of American power was our only response to the both the brutality and complexity of terrorism. Perhaps, this arrogance is most recently and brazenly exhibited in former Vice-President Dick Cheney's new book tour, where he boasts of having absolutely no regrets for any of the momentous decisions he took part in. These are decisions which have made the world an even more divided, polarized, dehumanized, and dangerous place -- 10 years after September 11, 2001.

But, fortunately, the official and failed response of Washington to the terrible tragedy of 9/11 has not been the only response. A new generation of Christians has asked how Jesus would respond to these same events. Many of them would agree with what Methodist Bishop Will Willimon recently said in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today: "American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat

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