On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was skipping school. In all of the scheming knowledge of my youth, I had scheduled an appointment to get new glasses that morning. So I spent a few extra hours in glorious sleep, and then channel-surfed while waiting for my ride.
Somewhere between Saved by the Bell reruns and ESPN, I briefly saw a scene of smoke billowing out from the first of the Twin Towers. But reports were at first confusing, unclear, and I left my house unaffected by the ominous footage.
I learned what had happened that morning from a television at a LensCrafters in Buffalo, N.Y. In perhaps the most mundane establishment in America, I watched the harrowing truth begin to reveal itself on the news scroll: “Planes strike World Trade Center in coordinated attack” … ”Pentagon third target” … “towers collapse.”
I was stunned; it all seemed surreal. I made my way to school and was finally dropped off around 1 p.m. Once there, I realized that while I was out gallivanting around suburban Buffalo, my classmates and teachers had been sitting rapt in classrooms living through that terrible morning together. In the library, students on study break and teachers with a free period watched the news on a projector. I sat with them.
How was it possible for all of this death to occur on such a frivolous morning? As we tend to personalize these tragic events, I thought, “Am I really just a missed appointment away from dying?”
I have a theory that the moments that resound with us the most are those that contain in them the greatest dissonance, the kind that jolt us from our comfort. When they come, we realize our lives will never be the same, and—what is most unsettling—that our lives were never exactly what we thought they were in the first place. America received a jolt on Sept. 11, 2001, and the dissonance—the tensions raised by the events of that fateful morning—remains unresolved.
The immediate and lingering effects of September 11 on individuals are varied in scope and shape. We still mourn those who died that day: Our family members. Our friends. Our fellow Americans. All made in God’s image. Our actions, as a nation and as individuals, have been influenced by our desire to ensure their deaths are not in vain. We remember where we were on 9/11, and we never want to be there again.
We felt the tension between war and peace. We entered this century with hopes for a new era of peace, but on 9/11, Americans were exposed to a sophisticated, unprecedented enemy. And so instead, this young century has been dominated by war.
The case for our action in Afghanistan and Iraq was in large part that the conflicts were prerequisites to peace. But as the costs of those wars rose, public support wavered.
This tension between war and peace is evident in our present consideration of military action in Syria. In fact, one of the primary tasks the Obama Administration has in making its case to the American people is to make clear that this is not “another Iraq”—arguing that our intervention in Syria would be limited, and would not put our troops at significant risk.
Another lesson of 9/11 has been invoked to make the case for intervention in Syria: Inaction might allow the same type of vacuum formed by human suffering that has boosted Al-Qaeda recruitment and fueled their war against the West. Would our inaction on military intervention now result in a greater military commitment and sacrifices down the road? Would our inaction result in more suffering—more war—in Syria or in other areas of the world? In a war-weary country, we still must grapple with the idea that we live in a time of conflict.
Another great dissonance in American life since 9/11 has been between our twin desires for freedom and security. In the wake of 9/11, when security was our most obvious and pressing need, Americans gave up a measure of their freedoms. Our routines changed: We now give our airport farewells at the security checkpoint where we assent to extensive screenings, and D.C. tourists can no longer drive down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of The White House.
Our laws changed: the Patriot Act, signed into law in the aftermath of 9/11, greatly expanded the government’s intelligence gathering capabilities—it allowed the government to see into more of our lives. Americans had even more tolerance for restricting the rights of others, shown by prolonged detainment in facilities like Guantanamo and torture of suspected terrorists and their accomplices.
Today, so far removed from 9/11, we are now renegotiating the lines between freedom and security that were drawn in response to the terrorist attack. Torture is now banned, and our nation’s intelligence agencies are now under great scrutiny and criticism. But each measure of freedom and privacy gained comes with it the worry that it will be that loosened freedom that causes the next 9/11. The tension persists.
Finally, 9/11 struck at a growing American ethos: that of diversity and tolerance. Just as America seemed focused on moving beyond the prejudices of her past with an intellectual openness to all things, our nation was attacked by a network of individuals motivated not by rational interest, but by a very specific set of ideas about morality, about God and about justice.
Some shallow and reactionary Americans claimed Islam was our national enemy. Mosques were vandalized. The opening of new mosques was protested. Hate crimes against Muslim Americans (and those who looked like them, including Sikhs) increased. The propriety of profiling in law enforcement and at our airports was discussed without much consideration for the humanity of those involved.
All of this was wrong, un-American and un-Christian. But we were forced to consider that there is evil in this world, and we were forced to determine who carried it and what it looked like. And certainly, there are ideas that must be condemned, and ideologies that must be defeated. An ideology that excuses terrorism as a necessary means, justified through a distortion of Islam or any other religion or set of ideas, cannot be ignored out of a sense of propriety or sensitivity. Tolerance falters where evil begins.
These tensions—between war and peace, freedom and security, tolerance and truth—were always present in America, but they were exacerbated by 9/11. In some ways, I wonder if we haven’t stopped running from those towers since that awful day.
Out of this dissonance, there is no one Christian answer to the concrete policy challenges we face. What we cannot do is fall into two opposing, yet equally damning camps: those who ignore these tensions and demand of those in power that they find ways to fulfill all of our desires fully, or those who out of arrogance insist that these tensions can be navigated without consequence.
Both ignorance and arrogance deny reality, and Christians are people who hold tightly to reality, because that is where God is present with us. There are concrete decisions to be made, and Christians should take on the work of helping make them even as we understand that in this broken world our answers will always be imperfect.
I remember where I was on Sept. 11, 2001. I was at LensCrafters. And I didn’t know Jesus. I had no idea where to go when the planes hit the towers; I just wanted to run.
A lot has changed since that day.
As I thought about a Christian approach to these post-9/11 tensions and this changing world, I was surprised to find myself turning to the scriptures President Bush and President Obama turned to when they spoke to the American people about that day.
From the Oval Office just hours after the attack, President Bush extended comfort to the American people from Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”
Ten years later, President Obama read Psalm 46 in front of the pool that now commemorates where the North Tower of the World Trade Center used to stand: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea … the Lord almighty is with us.”
We do not need to ignore the dissonance of our day or arrogantly claim we have figured out the way through this valley we are in. The world and its choices are imperfect, but we need not move forward in fear. The Lord is our Shepherd, our refuge and strength, and one day He will “make wars cease.” Perhaps we should stop running from the tensions and be still in them, knowing that He is God.
Michael Wear is a writer, speaker and consultant who helps organizations navigate the 21st century American religious and political landscape. He is a former advisor to President Barack Obama, serving in his White House and leading faith outreach for his re-election campaign. MichaelÕs website is michaelrwear.com and he is on twitter at @MichaelRWear.