The Common Good
September/October 2011

9/11: What Have We Learned?

by Jim Wallis | September/October 2011

America should be a safe place for people of all faiths.

Ten years ago, terrorists hijacked four airplanes over the United States. Two were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, a third into the Pentagon, and the fourth was crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. By the latest count, 2,996 people died, including the 19 hijackers and 2,977 victims.

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A few weeks after that tragedy, more than 4,000 religious leaders of all faiths signed a statement that was printed as an ad in The New York Times. We spoke of the moral response to terrorism: "We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to be," the statement said. "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."

On this 10th anniversary it is appropriate to ask what we have learned. How have we grown as a country? How have we healed, or how have we, in our hurt, turned around and hurt others? In two critical ways, we have shown that we did not learn the right lessons.

First, we have spent much of the past decade deeply engaged in two wars. Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush began the bombing of Afghanistan, which was followed with U.S. troops. The stated objectives were to capture or kill al Qaeda and to overthrow the Taliban government. Al Qaeda was quickly dispersed, and the Taliban removed from power. Osama bin Laden was, of course, killed this spring, not by the war of occupation but with rigorous intelligence and special forces. Yet more than 100,000 U.S. troops continue to occupy the country.

Eighteen months after the 9/11 attacks, the twin menaces of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction were cynically used to justify the invasion of Iraq. And far from the quick and easy victory that U.S. officials confidently predicted, the war resulted in almost a decade of violence and death. Eight years later, 50,000 U.S. troops remain, and many are still dying -- this June saw the highest monthly casualties in two years. In this issue, we feature a remarkable interview with Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), who has become one of the strongest congressional opponents of both wars, principally because of his faith.

In 10 years of war, more than twice as many Americans have been killed as were in the 9/11 attacks -- the total is now more than 6,100. By the time it's all paid for, the two wars will have cost us an estimated $4.4 trillion, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilian casualties. Neither war has made us safer or more secure. In fact, if anything, they have made us less so by fanning terrorist flames of resentment against the United States. Sojourners will continue to argue that war is not the answer. But our commitment is not only to reject or protest war, but to also find better ways to solve the problems that war purports to address. We must demonstrate how nonviolence can actually solve the problems that war claims to and doesn't. And that will be the biggest test of our imagination.

Second, despite the efforts of Presidents Bush and Obama to distinguish Islam from terrorism, Islamophobia in the United States appears to be rising. Incidents of Quran burnings, communities attempting to ban mosques, prohibitions of Muslim women from wearing traditional covering, ballot initiatives targeting "sharia" (Islamic law), workplace discrimination, and hate crimes are all frequently occurring.

This rise of intolerance toward Muslims in our national political discourse increases the importance of elevating voices committed to peace and interfaith understanding. We must continue to assert the American dream of pluralism and religious freedom. America should be a safe place for people of all faiths. We can increase U.S. Christians' understanding of Islam and counter stereotypes about Muslims by lifting up positive stories of interfaith cooperation, and by getting to know members of other faiths in our communities.

The media prefer conflict to stories of positive engagement and shared service between our diverse faith traditions. Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims -- especially younger believers -- have more interest in one another than they have fear, and many share a commitment that their faith must make a difference in the world. In some ways we are doing better since 9/11 than before; many churches know more about their Muslim neighbors, and their faith, and are learning to work together to make their communities better. The amazing and encouraging story of Heartsong Church in this issue is one such story. Our commitment at Sojourners is to tell those stories and encourage those partnerships.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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