Report from Ground Zero

I just returned from Ground Zero in New York City. Awestruck is the only word that comes to mind after seeing the scope of the devastation at what was once the World Trade Center on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. Thanks to the good graces of the local clergy and Red Cross, I was able to get right onto the site. All the pictures I’d seen couldn’t fully capture the enormity of the destruction that stood before me. Standing on the pile, I prayed and wondered what might come out of this incredible and atrocious event.

I met people doing extraordinary things that day, but I was especially struck with several groups of firefighters from cities around the country and Canada. They had come to attend memorial services and "just to be here," as one young fireman told me. After speaking to several of these men and women, I realized what was going on. They were pilgrims visiting a holy site. That’s what their faces and voices revealed to me. I’ve been to other holy sites and seen other pilgrims, and now saw the same thing going on at the site of the attacks.

We don’t visit holy sites just for the ritual; we go to be changed. How will the events of Sept. 11 change us? Will they change us? I am coming to believe that Sept. 11 could either become a doorway to transformation—or set us back for years.

The nation has moved quickly from peace and prosperity to war and recession. America has been attacked more massively and viciously than at any other time in our history. How will we respond? The truth is that it’s too early to say. But what are the choices before us?

Some say that poverty fell off the national agenda on Sept. 11 and won’t get back on. Already food banks, soup kitchens, shelters, and many other social service providers are suffering from diminishing donations. Faith-based organizations around the country are reporting shortfalls, and I’ve already seen the effects in many cities this fall. Fearful people are not always generous people.

Others fear that military spending and national security needs will demand so much of our attention and resources that there will be little left over for anything else. Still others worry about the loss of crucial civil liberties in a time of war, or that desires for energy independence will be used to justify oil drilling in sensitive environmental habitats. Military solutions to terrorism could dominate the nation’s foreign policy for years to come, leading to wider wars, recruiting even more terrorists, and fueling an unending cycle of violence. Critical questions of how to defeat terrorism and resolve conflicts in less violent ways could be given less attention than they deserve.

Instead of looking to ourselves or to American foreign policy to see how we have contributed to the grievances and injustice that breed terrorism, there’s a danger that the struggle is defined as simply a battle between good and evil. If we did not see the face of evil on Sept. 11, we will never recognize it. But to describe our own nation as only "good," as President Bush continues to do, is to miss the critical moment for self-reflection. Instead of facing the many roots of this evil, we could simply turn away from our own responsibilities. Yes, Sept. 11 could set us back. All these things are possible, and they are grave dangers.

BUT THERE ARE opportunities in the horrific events of Sept. 11—invitations, even, for national transformation. Since that day, it’s been harder to find parking spaces outside our churches, synagogues, and mosques. Is that just the need for spiritual comfort in a confusing and fearful time or, worse, is it merely seeking religious affirmation for American patriotism and civil religion? Or might faith communities help provide moral and political guidance in this crisis, and even offer prophetic words on what kind of people we ought now to be? Again, it’s too early to say, and it all depends on the choices we make.

Much was said about the heroism in response to Sept. 11 on the part of the firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers who literally

risked and even gave their lives for other people. During this crisis, my 3-year-old son, Luke, has really connected to "the helpers." We all should. But do we just admire the heroism, or do we learn from it? Actress Julia Roberts said it well in the celebrity telethon that followed the attacks. "We are learning in this crisis not to just save ourselves," Roberts said, "but to save each other." Indeed.

There was a remarkable equality in the suffering America experienced on Sept. 11, which I believe was responsible for all the talk of unity afterwards. When those twin towers fell, America suffered together. CEOs and janitors, law partners and data entry workers all died together as their families wept together. If we suffered together, we must now heal together. That’s the key. Let’s build on the new sense of national unity.

First, all those who were not included in our national unity before Sept. 11 must now be invited to the table. Twelve million children in America are poor. I was in Sweden this fall, where one in 60 children are poor. In wealthy and powerful America it is one in six, and one in three children of color. To abandon our poorest and most vulnerable citizens now would mock the God of compassion and undermine any sane notion of national strength and security. If we have indeed experienced a new and deeper understanding of unity since Sept. 11, it’s a good time to make sure everybody gets included in it.

In particular, 750,000 Americans have lost their jobs since Sept. 11. Many of them were already on the bottom end of the employment ladder, and lots of Americans are only one paycheck away from poverty. It’s time to say that there must be no bailouts of airline companies without a plan to sustain the livelihood of the 140,000 airline workers who have been laid off. Economic stimulus plans being debated in Congress that focus on tax cuts for our largest corporations and wealthiest individuals instead of the workers most directly affected should be named as a betrayal of our national unity. Washington’s well-heeled and highly paid lobbyists have crawled out of their K Street holes since Sept. 11 to turn a national disaster into a grab-bag program for America’s special interests. In the name of our new national unity, Americans must clearly say "Shame on you."

ON SEPT. 11, Americans joined the world. Our sense of national invulnerability was shattered. Instead of just bombing every country where terrorists live and telling the world "you’re either with us or against us," we might actually reach out to a world that, until now, too few Americans have really understood. There are already some positive signs. In a Virginia high school, 75 students have begun to study Arabic. In Fort Worth, Texas, an evening with a local imam to discuss Islam was expected to draw 50 people and 225 showed up. The best-selling books in America now are about Islam, and a surprising number of American Christians responded very enthusiastically to Sojourners’ call to fast during Ramadan. This could be a teachable moment—a time to understand and critically evaluate what our government does in our name.

Now is the time to finally demand a Middle East peace settlement that is just for both Palestinians and Israelis, thereby addressing the most grievous source of anger among Arabs and Muslims. Now is the time to change our sanctions policy in Iraq, which kills children but doesn’t hurt Saddam Hussein. Now is the time to support democracy in the Arab world, where official stupidity, greed, and oppression have helped lead us to this dangerous place. Now is the time to undertake not just hunger relief but major economic reconstruction in Afghanistan and the entire region—which will win more hearts and minds away from terrorism than will endless bombing campaigns.

The loss of so many lives, which were sacred, and the heroism of sacrifice offered there makes Ground Zero in New York City a sacred place. In a way, we’ve all become pilgrims now. Let this pilgrimage change us.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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