It seems like only yesterday that the world watched the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, chillingly unfold on TV. The attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center turned jetliners into missiles to reduce the New York City landmarks to tombs of rubble. The Pentagon was attacked, and only the courage of passengers on a fourth flight thwarted an intended attack upon the White House.
The 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks has prompted many of us to take a long look back to try to make sense of that tragic day and everything that has happened since.
Closing in on the 10th anniversary, questions are flying: Is the world a safer place 10 years later? Is America more secure than it was 10 years ago? Was the resulting war – still being waged today – worth it? What has this experience done to the people of the United States? Have we become not only more vigilant but more paranoid, too? Besides an innocence about our national security, what have we lost? Have we gained anything in 10 years?
It may well take several more decades to definitively answer some of these questions. It is appropriate to take time to remember the victims of 9/11 – many of them bona fide heroes like police officers, firefighters, other emergency responders and many other people. We remember them as a nation so that we will not forget that day of unspeakable loss and sacrifice.
Various writers and broadcasters have pointed out what one called a brief moment of national unity immediately following the attack. The nation was united in its grief and partisan rhetoric at the highest levels of government all but disappeared – if only for a moment. Much of the rest of the world grieved with America.
American citizens, intelligence operatives and police assumed since the 9/11 suicide "bombers" attacked from within our borders, they represented only a remnant of terrorist-types who potentially lived in every U.S. city and might be planning their own 9/11 attacks whenever we least expected it. Indeed, their vigilance resulted in the arrests and convictions of others planning terror.
Most of the nation turned a blind eye to initiatives such as the broadening of warrantless wiretapping. "Whatever it takes to avoid another 9/11" seemed to be the collective sigh. As a nation, in those early days after the attacks, we resigned ourselves to living in fear. After all, who could be assured of their personal safety with such violent forces willing to die with their victims, some were thinking.
The nation experienced understandable paranoia.
Because the attacks were carried out by acknowledged Islamic terrorists, some citizens surmised that every adherent to the religion of Islam living in the United States was at least sympathetic to the terrorists if not thrilled by their success. Some carried that to the next level, regarding with suspicion anyone of Arab roots, even though not all Muslims are Arab. Plans for the construction of mosques were met with intense local opposition.
That level of suspicion was fueled by radio and television talk-show pundits, and spurious information about the Islamic faith spread across the Internet like wildfire.
Thankfully, many churches took a different approach in the wake of 9/11. They created opportunities for members to learn more about the beliefs of Muslims living among them. And they found communities of Muslims willing to explain the tenets of their religion and also willing to learn from those of the Christian faith. Muslims also were given the opportunity to repudiate the actions of those they say subvert their religion by committing atrocities against non-Muslims.
On Sunday, Sept. 11, congregations across America will gather to remember that frightening day 10 years ago. They will pray for the families of those whose lives were snuffed out on 9/11. They will reflect back on their own feelings at the time and their attitudes since. In the context of worship, they will reflect on their future.
The nation may still be asking after 10 years, "Where do we go from here?" That is the question that requires an answer, not only nationally or even globally, but in the hearts of people who desire a better world for their children and their neighbors' children. Ministers and congregations will help members with that.
For individuals of faith, the question might be simply but profoundly stated, "How then shall we live?"
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.