The Devastation of September 11, 2001: A Reflection

by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

I. Introduction

Upon waking up early on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I turned the radio on to listen to the morning news. When I initially heard that two hijacked aircraft had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, a third one had struck the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and a fourth one had fallen down in Pennsylvania; I thought, in disbelief and denial, that it had to be some kind of a macabre joke. This sounded more like fiction to me than actual fact. Unfortunately, as the day unfolded, and as CBC television repeatedly broadcasted the horrible footage of the World Trade Center?s destruction; as the terror-stricken faces flashed across my television screen and reporters interviewed a number of eyewitnesses to these horrific events; I was very quickly assured that this was indeed fact and not fiction.

For the rest of that day, I experienced the deepest sense of solidarity and empathy with my fellow Canadians, along with millions of citizens from all corners of the globe for the American people. The pain, suffering, grief and trauma of families who lost loved ones in particular; as well as all Americans in general were foremost in my thoughts and prayers. As the days went by and more people spoke with me about the devastation of September 11th; attempting to process our grief together; we asked many of the agonising questions. After wrestling with them, it struck me that our questions and the subsequent discussions were holy insofar as they drew us closer to God and one another for spiritual, emotional and moral support. In what follows, I shall highlight some of my personal reflections that grew out of these questions and discussions.

II. Social, Political, Economic Implications

The tragic events of September 11th shall likely change the whole world. Already we have learned of some of the social implications. In New York, resource people from all over America and other nations, including Canada, offered their loving services and solidarity. There were deeds of loving-kindness and acts of heroism all over the city: everything from around-the-clock emergency and rescue operations, to blood-donor clinics, to the care and counselling of victims? families. The city and nation rallied together as one large family in the face of such cruel tragedy. Citizens all over America and internationally, also turned to churches and synagogues for refuge, comfort, prayer vigils, services of remembrance, etc. At the time of this writing, it is unclear yet how or whether terrorism will restrict both individual and collective freedoms. Nor is it surprising that the United States and likely other western countries will tighten up their security policies at airports, on aircraft, and at borders; as well as change legislation concerning the immigration and extradition of terrorist activists and organisations. Another social factor in all of this is how fear already has and likely will influence people?s lives. One can only hope and pray that both personally and collectively, fears will not dictate the future destiny of America and the rest of the world.

In terms of the political and economic implications of September 11th, already we have witnessed America soliciting the support of western democratic nations and as many Muslim nations as possible?including Indonesia, which has the world?s largest Muslim population?to form a coalition for an all out "war against terrorism," not against Arabs or Muslims. In the aftermath of these terrorist attacks, the American government has taken a hard line against Osama bin Laden, the Afghanistan Taliban government, and all other individuals, organisations or nations who are suspected of harbouring and supporting terrorists. Washington has insisted that it will not negotiate diplomatically with terrorists or those harbouring and supporting them?flatly rejecting the offer of Afghanistan Islamic clergy to ask Osama bin Laden to leave their country of his own free will. One wonders whether Washington?s non-negotiable demands will be met; or whether such a political and attendant military stance will only strengthen the resolve of terrorists, breeding more violence and hatred against the United States and its allies, and ultimately escalating into a very serious military campaign?which has the potential of wreaking profound havoc for millions of innocent people. One wonders too where the United Nations is in all of this?why have they not taken more of a proactive role in negotiating diplomatically with the American and Afghanistan governments? For those Christians who support the "just war" stance, the question must be raised as to whether or not all nonviolent means of solving this tragedy and future terrorism have been seriously implemented first, before choosing a military solution only as a last resort. Moreover, America thus far, for the most part, seems to ignore the cause-effect relationship of having trained and armed terrorists such as bin Laden and his ilk by the CIA. Is it in the best interests of America, or any nation for that matter, to continue such strategies with a view that such means will justify satisfactory political ends? If America and the coalition countries do, in fact, choose the military option in their quest for justice against terrorism; will this lead into even more pronounced political lines drawn in the sand between affluent and developing nations? How serious have the western, democratic nations asked or explored seriously, the questions of what political conditions create terrorists and terrorism? What are the root causes of terrorism and how can it be "nipped in the bud" in proactive political ways?

Of course, such questions as above are also intricately related to the economic implications of the terrorist attacks. The fact that terrorists chose the World Trade Center twin towers in New York as their targets is certainly no accident. Rather, they symbolize the seat of world economic power and injustice for at least some developing nations?although most of the latter would likely never choose such atrocious terrorist means to reach their political and economic ends. For a while, the terrorists succeeded in creating enormous fear and chaos among the world economic power brokers by closing down briefly and destabilising the stock market. It remains unclear presently what lasting repercussions all of this will have on the American and world economies. Nor is it clear whether or not this will prompt radical, systemic changes in investment policies, which might favour improving the future economic climate of poverty-stricken nations?with a view to preventing the economic conditions of terrorists and terrorism. If we really believe that we are our neighbour?s keepers; then is it not imperative that justice, mercy and ethics need to shape our economic policies and practices, nationally and internationally? The Israelite prophets and Jesus himself are most clear on this matter, see for example: Luke 4:16-21, Isaiah 61:1-2, Amos 5:18-24, Micah 6:6-8. It is clear from these texts that the in-breaking of God?s realm?along with a right relationship with God?have just, merciful and ethical economic consequences.

III. Spiritual Implications

The spiritual implications emerging out of September 11th, I believe, are quite profound. First, unfortunately, the media coverage has informed us that there have been verbal and violent attacks against Muslims and Arabs living in America, Canada and other western countries. Muslims and Arabs have received death-threatening telephone calls at home, bomb threats to their schools and bullets have damaged mosques. This is most alarming?since it only gives legitimacy to the heinous tactics and hatred of the terrorists. Moreover, such behaviours and attitudes tend to unfairly condemn all Arabs and Muslims. Historically speaking, we have to remind ourselves that whenever any racial, religious or ethnic group has become ghettoised; it has, all too often, inevitably led to more prejudicial fears, suspicions, stereotyping ?thus distorting the truth about "the other"and eventually escalating into hatred, persecution and horrific acts of violence. As Christians at times like this, we are given opportunities to be exemplars of love and good-will toward our Muslim neighbours. Second, such atrocious attacks of violence on September 11th, offer both Christians and Muslims a timely opportunity to organise serious dialogues focussing on the beliefs and practices of our respective traditions concerning violence. This may well be the appropriate time for us Christians to bear faithful witness to our Muslim neighbours by emphasising Christ?s non-violent, non-retaliatory teachings and practices. In such dialogues, it is incumbent on Muslims to clarify their beliefs and practices of fatwas and jihads. Do such beliefs and practices not exacerbate further revenge and violence and hinder peaceful, just solutions to conflicts? Third, the aftermath of September 11th raises for some the controversial question of religious freedom and pluralism. On the one hand, Muslims enjoy their religious freedoms in western, pluralistic societies as much as do non-Muslims. On the other hand, most Islamic nations do not allow non-Muslims to openly exercise their religious freedoms. Over the years?especially since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1960s and 70s?Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have documented several cases where Christians suffered persecution, and imprisonment for attempting to exercise their religious freedoms in Islamic countries. Both Christians and Muslims may benefit from grappling with a thorny question like the following: How far are both Christians and Muslims willing to allow religious freedoms and pluralism in their societies without losing the authenticity of their own respective faith traditions? Or, formulated differently: what are the limits of religious freedoms and pluralism, and when those limits have been reached; how does a society handle seemingly irreconcilable religious differences in non-violent ways ? Fourth, several media pundits?to their credit!?have emphasised the significant role the Church has played for both Christians and non-Christians since September 11th. Not only in New York and Washington, but across America, Canada, and in many other countries around the world, prayer vigils and services of mourning and remembrance were organised as acts of love and solidarity. Churches have opened their doors to all manner of humanity, offering?among other things?a safe place to hear the word and receive the sacrament, to pray, mourn, reflect, and engage in acts of loving-kindness for others in their times of greatest need. Christians who worship and serve a suffering, crucified Messiah are, by God?s grace, able to be Christ?s presence by walking with those who continue to suffer from the devastation of September 11th. As has been the case so many times in the history of God?s people?see for example, Genesis 50:15-21, the Passion and Resurrection narratives of all four Gospels, and Romans 8:18-30?one trusts, hopes and prays that our Triune God is able to work good out of this horrific evil; affirming the holiness and infinite value of life.