During the weeks since the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., it has often been said that Sept. 11 was a day that changed everything. Well, I don’t know about everything, but certainly it was a day that changed a lot of things. Obviously the changes were radical for victims of the aggression and their surviving loved ones and colleagues.
Life was dramatically altered, too, for many emergency workers, volunteers and military personnel pressed into sudden service. And an alarming number of airline and other workers lost their jobs due to severe industry downturns after the attacks. It’s also true that our national consciousness has shifted. For a long time the events will be in our thoughts, our conversations, our concerns, our prayers.
In spite of all that, for the majority of us life goes on. Perhaps we’ll be a bit jumpier about some things. I admit to being nervous about that cross-country plane trip my wife and I are taking in February. And three suspicious cases of anthrax in Florida are receiving national attention as I write, due to the disease’s long association with biological weaponry. The news didn’t mention hundreds of others who likely died today from various illnesses and mishaps and acts of violence.
Which leads to an interesting reflection. Many have said that after Sept. 11 they have felt much less safe. My question is, why did they feel safe before Sept. 11? Life has never been safe. Statistically speaking there are greater threats to national safety lurking than hijackers and terrorists, such as getting in the car and driving to work in the morning.
But we don’t like to think about that. We’d rather believe we’re in control, even when confronted daily with the myriad of things we can’t control. A prime question after Sept. 11 has been: How can we prevent something like this from happening again? The answer is, we can’t. At least not entirely. Yes, we can take measures and increase security and work at the roots of terrorism, but the reality of living in a free society is that those bent on destroying others can’t always be stopped.
So the question isn’t really about how we’re ever going to feel safe again, but how we’re going to live after this latest reminder that we’re never entirely secure on this earth. Of course we Christians would say our hope is in a higher place, in the “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). Yes, that’s what we say—perhaps these uncertain times provide a fresh chance to find out if we really mean it.
A couple of other thoughts in the aftermath of Sept. 11:
1. The fight against terrorism was quickly proclaimed to be a battle between good and evil. I understand that, but it’s important to remember that the other side feels exactly the same way. This attack was carried out by those who believe God is on their side, that America is the Evil Empire, the great satanic force. America is the corrupter of morals, the spreader of greed and gluttony, the exploiter of weak nations and world resources.
The sad truth is, such views are not entirely wrong. In no way does that excuse the heinous deeds of Sept. 11, but it should remind us to be careful about holding unrealistic views of our country as some kind of righteous or holy nation. We’re not. The U.S. does much good in the world, but we also make mistakes and bad policy and poor global choices. Sometimes we put our own comforts ahead of others’ survival. So it shouldn’t be surprising if some in the world don’t share our high opinion of ourselves.
In light of that, I was relieved the military strikes didn’t start right away, as I feared they might. Some were critical of that fact. They felt we should have bombed first and asked questions later. But what would that have accomplished besides making more enemies and heightening our national reputation as bullies and bigots? Quick revenge may feel good at the moment, but it usually makes things worse in the long run. Now that the strikes have started, I can’t help wishing we’d waited longer while strengthening alliances and building global consensus against terrorism. Will this military action really help, or will it merely accelerate the cycle of violence?
2. A few day after the attack someone gave me a printout of a U.S. flag with the words “Proud to be an American” on it. Thinking about that, I wondered if pride was really the right thing to fell. I’m privileged to be an American, blessed to be an American, but becoming an American wasn’t my doing. I could have been born in Afghanistan, where today I’d be a victim of Taliban totalitarianism, wondering when a U.S. missile is going to land on my head.
So pride isn’t really what I’ve felt after Sept. 11, but rather a sadness for the dark side of human nature we all share, and a gratefulness that God loves all us humans anyway. It’s good to be an American; better to be a citizen of God’s kingdom.
Philip Wiebe was a CL columnist, writing “Ph’lip Side”.