September 11

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.

Commemorating 9/11, Commemorating Christ

"Christian liturgy is a form of commemorative ceremony." Photo courtesy of vivver/Shutterstock.

Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.

A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.

On 9/11 Anniversary, a Survivor Seeks a National Day of Discussion

The twin towers of the World Trade Center, shown along the skyline in New York City. Photo via Shuttershuck/RNS.

As a survivor of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I worry about how we will remember that tragic day 50, 100, even 200 years from now.

I worry because our nation does a poor job of commemorating our most historic heroes and events. Our efforts to honor history consistently lead to one of two disappointing outcomes.

Our official holidays have become increasingly commercialized. Consider the relatively recent exploitation of Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Virtually all other anniversaries have been marginalized. Consider how little attention is paid each summer to the July 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, one of humanity’s most impressive achievements.

From 9/11 to ISIS: Resolving the Paradox of the U.S. War on Terror

9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, June 24, 2014. M. Shcherbyna / Shutterstock.com

9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, June 24, 2014. M. Shcherbyna / Shutterstock.com

It’s been 14 years since our government declared war on terrorism. How are we doing? It feels like a disastrous game of Whack-A-Terrorist, doesn’t it? We kill one terrorist hiding in one hole, and out pops another one from another hole. Now we are facing the newest threat, a terrorist organization seeking to set up a nation-state, ISIS or IS, as its leadership prefers to be called. The Islamic State, at least, would be a concrete opponent. If they hold on to territory and establish a functioning government, we could at least declare war on a tangible target. Though regrettable it would at least make sense within the logic of war in which states fight other states.

In a recent article for Patheos.com, David French uses Christian Scripture as a justification for “responding to ISIS with wrath and vengeance.” French is a lawyer, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He claims that, according to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, while individuals are called upon to love their enemies, there is no such call placed on governments. In fact, God has instituted governmental authority in order to execute his wrath against evildoers. And apparently, or so Romans 13 puts it according to French, to know who the evildoers are one simply needs to look at who governments are punishing. French quotes the relevant passage, Romans 13:3-5:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [Emphasis added by French.]

French concludes that American Christians should have no difficulty determining the correct response to ISIS. Why? By the fact of determining that justice must be executed against ISIS, our government has determined that their violence is not only an offense against American citizens (he names the beheading victims, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff) but against God himself.

French’s analysis strains credulity. Doesn’t he realize that the Romans to whom Paul was writing were themselves victims of government persecution? Does he think that these persecuted Christians felt they were being justly punished? And what about Paul himself, a Roman citizen who was persecuted and executed by the Roman government? Doesn’t French realize that by his own argument, the Roman authorities were executing God’s judgment against Paul? And by his own analysis, French is a captain in a military force that is from its origins a justifiable target for God’s wrath. Why? Because the founding act of the United States was a rebellion against a government, and “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2)

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Sad monster illustration, Elena Nayashkova / Shutterstock.com

Sad monster illustration, Elena Nayashkova / Shutterstock.com

Alexander was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

It's a children's story. I know. A no good, very bad day ... how do you prepare your kids for that kind of day where nothing seems to go right, where at every turn knobs break and we step in puddles and get gum stuck in our hair?

Maybe, we tell ourselves, that we can move to Australia and everything will be better.

Well, no. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days happen there, too. They happen everywhere. Everywhere. It's a great book.

So what do we do about them? The classic children's book doesn't answer the question for us. Not really. It's just a little bit of truth telling with fun illustrations. Some days are just terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.

But as we grow older, we learn that though these days do simply happen, that there are attitudes one can have, there are approaches to these days one can take.

Muslim Mother Seeks Justice for the Son She Lost on 9/11

 Photo courtesy Talat Hamdani

Salman Hamdani, an NYPD cadet and EMT who was killed on 9/11. Photo courtesy Talat Hamdani

It’s been five years now that Talat Hamdani has been able to talk about her son without crying, but she still prefers mostly not to tell his story.

“It’s all over the Internet,” she said.

She’s stopped talking about how she initially didn’t worry when her son, Mohammad Salman Hamdani, who was a cadet with the New York City Police Department, didn’t answer his cellphone that night; about how police questioned her and her husband when authorities couldn’t find their son’s body, to see if he had any terrorist connections; about the New York Post headline a month after the attacks — “Missing – Or Hiding? – Mystery Of NYPD Cadet From Pakistan,” that cast him as a suspect in the 9/11 attacks.

Palm Sunday, War in Iraq, and Our Resistance to Mass Manipulation

Photo courtesy Robert Voight/shutterstock.com

On Palm Sunday many will hear the Gospel of Luke’s perspective surrounding Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-40). In hearing this well-known portion of the New Testament, we are often led to wonder how the same crowds that so graciously and enthusiastically welcomed Jesus would passionately and viciously call for his death just a few days later. In trying to comprehend the sudden and significant shift in public opinion, we recognize that the crowds did not swing their support independently, but rather, they were acting under the influential push of propaganda.

As Luke’s Gospel reminds us, in between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the calls for his crucifixion, the “chief priests and the scribes” plotted to put Jesus to death (22:2). As these powerful elites were “afraid of the people”, they conspired in a power-protecting push to have Jesus humiliated, tortured, and brutally killed. And so, while Luke’s Gospel does not provide exact details into the strategies of the chief priests and scribes, their motivations appear to be clear, as they, and others within the ruling class, perceived Jesus as a risk and thus needed to ensure his quick and clear elimination. As a result, due to the influential influx of propaganda, combined with an overly complicit public, just a short time after Jesus was welcomed as a king he was sentenced to death as a criminal.

How the Lord’s Prayer Saved a 9/11 Survivor

Credit: RNS photo courtesy John Mahony

For John Mahony remembers how prayer helped him the morning of Sept. 11. Credit: RNS photo courtesy John Mahony

Out of the chaos, to the rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer, John Mahony, a retired U.S. Army colonel who was managing projects for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, sensed something that reminded him of when his mother would wrap him up as he’d climb out of a cold swimming pool, and he would be held, safe and warm, in loving arms.

“As I walked down that stair, somewhere between the 12th floor and the 10th, somewhere between ‘Our Father’ and ‘Thy will be done,’ that same feeling came over me," Mahony said. "Suddenly, I was wrapped in warmth, and love, and comfort. In that smoky, wet stairway, in a burning building, surrounded by a thousand frightened people; I felt wonder. I felt God’s peace, and I knew that regardless of the physical outcome, everything would be all right.”

Facts and Ideology

In September, 2003, I wrote a piece for Sojourners magazine on the "Project for the New American Century," a neo-con organization to which a number of key Bush administration officials had belonged, including Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In its grand plan for the future, released in September 2000, it urged a “transformation” of the American military into a robust global presence capable of fighting multiple wars, with a network of bases in critical regions around the world. But, the report said, this transformation was "likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor."

From its beginning, the project was obsessed with Iraq.

Only days later after the catastrophic 9/11 attacks, the Project released a letter arguing that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq." 

Now it seems that strategy began well before 9/11. In a New York Times op-ed this morning, author Kurt Eichenwald wrote of the series of briefings the Bush White House received from the CIA in the spring and summer of 2001, all warning of an attack to come. 

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