Please, Do Not Let Paris Be Another 9/11

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Just like you, I was horrified when I learned of the terror attacks in Paris on Nov. 13. The scale, precision, and barbarity of these crimes are hard to fathom.

My first reaction was sadness for the victims and a desire for peace. My second was a sense of mild panic. If they can do this in Paris, they can certainly do it in my city!

My third reaction, one I’m not particularly proud of: I thought about how much I’d like to see the people responsible for these acts hunted down and destroyed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about 9/11 lately. I remember the way that we as a nation went through a similar three-step process. We went from shock and sympathy to fear and paranoia, and finally to the conviction that we must annihilate those who attacked us.

It all happened so quickly.

I Nearly Died on 9/11. I Still Believe in Peace.

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Our class studying terrorism found itself under terrorist attack.

You might expect these military men would be first in line calling for the use of force. You would be wrong. Veterans of the first Iraq war, they, like Gen. Colin Powell, warned that starting a war would be easy, but accomplishing anything good by the use of force in the region would be hard. Military attacks would "rearrange the rubble" and incite retribution and further cycles of violence. They urged other responses — political engagement, diplomacy, [and] legal and financial instruments.

As advisors to the U.S. Catholic Bishops, we also urged using “just peace” methods. Pope — now Saint — John Paul II urged President Bush not to invade Iraq but to pursue a just peace. The U.S. invasion would de-stabilize the entire region, cause worse bloodshed, and do more harm than good.

Today, as then, the military and religious leaders agree. We ought to notice.

At 9/11 Site, Pope Prays with Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindus

REUTERS / Tony Gentile / RNS

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, far right, speaks as Pope Francis stands with Jewish and Muslim leaders as he visits the museum to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, on September 25, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Tony Gentile / RNS

Pope Francis embraced survivors of 9/11 in the footprints of the Twin Towers, then prayed for peace at an interfaith service beside the last column of steel salvaged from the fallen skyscrapers.

Arriving straight from his speech to the United Nations on Sept. 25, Francis met with 10 families from the 9/11 community — people who survived the destruction, rescued others from the inferno, or lost loved ones in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, executed by religious zealots.

The Ecology of Trauma: Resilience in a Post-9/11 Nation

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Some social and trauma theorists believe these issues are directly symptomatic of an undiffused, collective trauma around the event of 9/11 — exacerbated by our post-modern, technocratic society, in which our witness of one another is often relegated by social media personas and devices. The environment is controlled, protected, guarded — a false sense of security that instead perpetuates isolation and disconnection. This raises a question as to where, and whether, we are experiencing integrated and authentic community as we heal.

It is widely acknowledged that supportive and caring community is an absolutely necessity in trauma repair. To be sure, the answer is complex and dynamic. But perhaps on this day of remembrance, rather than re-enacting our dissociative narratives, we can attempt to reimagine and embrace courageously an authentic witness — to continue the work towards a restorative, integrative, and peaceful future.

“Never Forget…”

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If our nation is to remember the lives of all who have suffered because of 9/11, Christians will need to do their part to renegotiate the terms for who and what we remember. Otherwise, “never forget” will remain a well-intended but shallow slogan that encourages us to elevate some lives above others, and to turn a blind eye to the violence, injustice, and hatred directed at Muslims in our name.

If our nation is to remember the lives of all who have suffered because of 9/11, Christians will need to do their part to renegotiate the terms for who and what we remember. Otherwise, “never forget” will remain a well-intended but shallow slogan that encourages us to elevate some lives above others, and to turn a blind eye to the violence, injustice, and hatred directed at Muslims in our name.

Shooting in a Moral Vacuum

CLINT EASTWOOD has made films about the sorrow and repeating pointlessness of war, as seen through the eyes of both aggressor and aggressed-against, with empathic performances and unbearably moving impact. His American Sniper, about the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, bloodied in Iraq and struggling at home, is not one of those films. At best it’s a valuable character study of a confused warrior, revealing the traumatic effect of his service. At worst it’s a jingoistic and xenophobic attempt to put varnish on a terrible national response to the horror of 9/11, a response that became a self-inflicted wound creating untold collateral damage.

A decade ago, Eastwood made Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which saw World War II soldiers as propaganda fodder and had the moral imagination to show both sides as courageous and broken without denying the difference between attacker and defender. These films are respectful and thoughtful, but American Sniper is arguably a work born in vengeance. Its reception (becoming one of the biggest January box office weekends ever, and a quick right-wing favorite) is part of the failure to deal in an integrated way with the wounds of 9/11, or to even begin to face the reality of the war in Iraq: an imperial conquest using the cover of national trauma as a justification.

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The Torture Monkey

THERE'S NO BETTER sequel to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of the torture report than Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s newly published Guantánamo Diary. This harrowing tale is only one of what someday will be many direct accounts by victims.

Originally from Mauritania, Slahi, 44, was detained on a journey home in January 2000 and questioned about the so-called Millennium plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport. Slahi admitted that he’d fought against Afghanistan’s communist government with the Mujahideen, at that time supported by the U.S. But he never opposed the United States. Authorities released him. A year and a half later, the young engineer was again detained and again released.

Months later, Slahi drove himself to a local police station to answer questions. This time, Americans forced him onto a CIA plane bound for Jordan, where he claims he was tortured. On Aug. 5, 2002, Americans brought him to Guantánamo. Slahi is among the detainees whose horrific torture there is the centerpiece of the Senate report. None other than then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld signed the “special interrogation plan” authorizing his brutal ordeal.

Slahi divides his imprisonment into pre-torture, when he truthfully denied any involvement in terrorism, and post-torture, “where my brake broke loose. I yessed every accusation my interrogators made. I even wrote the infamous confession about me planning to hit the CN Tower in Toronto, based on SSG [redacted] advice. I just wanted to get the monkeys off my back.”

His captors beat and threatened him, and  subjected him to bitter cold, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and repulsive sexual abuse by female interrogators. Yet Slahi seems more traumatized by the torture he witnessed: teenagers who could barely lift their heads, confused old men, and others like him who said anything to get the pain to stop.

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Greek Orthodox Launch Rebuilding of St. Nicholas, the Only Church Destroyed on 9/11

Archbishop Demetrios of America addresses the crowd during a ceremony Oct. 18. Photo by Sarah Pulliam Bailey/RNS.

Leaders of a Greek Orthodox church that was destroyed during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center broke ground on a new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church that will overlook the 9/11 Memorial.

The new domed building is scheduled to open in 2016, the same year as the church’s 100th anniversary. The church has raised $7 million of about $38 million needed.

Plans to rebuild the church were stalled by a dispute with the Port Authority of New York, which is in charge of overall rebuilding efforts at Ground Zero. Under an 2011 agreement brokered by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the church agreed to drop its lawsuit in return for building at a larger site.

On Oct. 18, government and church leaders joined on a concrete platform surrounded by steel foundation beams and orange construction netting to break ground for the church, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Patrick J. Foye, who was named earlier this year as executive director of the Port Authority, said the future building would be “an iconic house of worship,” comparable to the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown.

A Shard of Hope: HBO’s 'The Leftovers' on Grief

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

As a native New Yorker, I can never forget Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was in college, but heading to my part-time job that morning. My car was being fixed, so my father drove me to work. There was an unusual amount of traffic and as we turned on the radio, we heard a reporter talk about a plane that hit the World Trade Center.

The first thought we had was that this was an accident. It had to be an accident, right? As we listened to the reports though, the second plane hit and it was clear that something was very, horribly, terrifyingly wrong.

From our office in Queens, we watched the towers burn and then collapse. The image of the great cloud of smoke and debris encompassing the skyline has been burned on my brain. And a few days later, while handing out sandwiches to mourners at the makeshift memorial at Union Square with my parents’ church and non-profit organization, the feeling of hugging a total stranger while she wept on my shoulder will never leave me.

It is impossible to forget.

I must admit the timeliness on the part of HBO to air the season finale of The Leftovers in the week of 9/11. Tom Perotta, who authored the play on which the show is based, purposely included allusions to 9/11. Rather than a theological treatise on the Rapture, it is a beautiful case study in grief and the excruciating tension between the desire to move forward and the need to remember.

War Is Not the Answer

Sojourners magazine Jan.-Feb. 2003 cover

That was a bumper sticker Sojourners published at the outset of the Iraq war more than a decade ago. American church leaders had not only opposed the war but offered an alternative: "An Alternative to War for Defeating Saddam Hussein, A Religious Initiative." We not only presented it to Colin Powell’s personal council and Tony Blair, but also printed full-page ads in every major British newspaper the day before their Parliamentary debate and vote on the war. The U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Affairs, Clair Short, told me the only real alternative on the table in their Cabinet meetings was “The American church leaders’ plan,” which, she said, was seriously discussed. U.S. and U.K. leaders showed they were drawn to an alternative plan to war that would remove any weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein might have had (which he did not) and even to ultimately remove him from power but without going to war. Pope John Paul II was also opposed to the potential war. Both the Vatican and the American church leaders warned that the potential costs of a war in Iraq could include increasing the scope and threats of international terrorism. ISIS is that sad prophecy come true; the habit of war prevailed.

I have always believed that any alternative to war must still address the very real problems at hand — just in a more effective way. To say that “war is not the answer” is not only a moral statement but also is a serious critique of what doesn’t work; wars often fail to solve the problems and ultimately make them worse. War has to answer to metrics, just as more peaceful alternatives do. The war in Iraq was a complete failure with enormous human and financial costs; ISIS is now one of the consequences.