We are five years away now from the incineration of the Twin Towers when, in one blow, 19 radical religious zealots with a memory for Crusades and a hatred for the United States turned the world upside down. Or we did. It’s very hard to tell five years later who really did more of the turning.
What specific concerns drove these men to the point where they would give up their own lives just to injure ours is hard to tell. Few asked, and fewer still seemed to care. In the midst of national grief—and for many, anger—all that mattered, apparently, was who to strike in retaliation. Anybody would do, it seemed. And so we did.
The world needn’t have changed the day the Towers went down or even, perhaps, with the military attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. It certainly changed, however, on the day when, without clear proof of Iraq’s involvement, without undeniable certainty, without the approval of most of the world, the United States roared over Iraq on bombing raids and rolled into Baghdad to tear down the statue of Saddam Hussein.
On that day—not long after the whole world had grieved with us over the merciless loss of 3,000 innocent U.S. lives—the world divided in its loyalties, most of them against us.
Now the United States, once the most open country in the world, has become a country under siege. Now we make 80-year-old widows and 6-year-old boys take off their shoes in our airports to make sure they are not carrying explosives designed to harm us again. Now we have been longer at war with the ghosts of these 19 men than we were with Nazi Germany in World War II. Now we have become invaders, torturers, paranoid partners in global destabilization. The people who would “meet us with flowers singing in the streets” have left us with more than 18,000 wounded, 10,000 of them permanently disabled, and more than 2,500 dead.
Flush with weapons, we are now too poor to afford education grants or social security or universal medical insurance. Now we, too, pick up people in grand random sweeps, call them terrorists, hold them without charge, detain them without lawyers, cage them like animals, and fight with one another over whether or not we are a “Christian” country. If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny. But it’s not.
We have changed the globe; divided it into armed and arming camps. We have accelerated a new kind of arms race with smaller countries of the world intent now on getting nuclear weapons themselves. After all, aren’t we the ones who made the concept of “Mutually Assured Destruction” the ultimate defense strategy? We have changed the Constitution (or ignored it) to allow domestic spying. We have changed the country; stripped it of its liberties and enlarged the powers of the administration to such an extent that we face the prospect of being governed more by the king of a republic than by the president of a democracy. But worst of all, perhaps, we have traded in “America the Beautiful”—whom much of the world revered, or at least respected—for America the Brutal, whom the world now mistrusts. Now we have really given the radicals something to fight about. Indeed, the anniversary of 9/11 is a sad day for peacemakers, not unlike the day after the crucifixion when the work of a lifetime seemed lost.
At the same time, it may be one of the most glorious moments in the history of peacemaking. There is in it the resurrection of an idea: There is no glory in war. And more, there is no victory in it either. There is only the silence of the innocent dead in a cause without cause.
The Twin Towers are not the only thing that went down five years ago. What went down is the soul of a country that once put principle over power. Is such a country Christian? Only if it, too, rises from the values that have died in it. And soon.
Joan Chittister, OSB, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision and the author of many books, including The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward).