Last Saturday marked the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Memorial events occurred at each site, as well as at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The whole nation paused to remember, each person in their own way. I spent part of the day listening to NPR's coverage, including interviews with many family members of those killed. Deep sadness over horrific loss filled their stories, such that tears also filled my eyes.
We all remember that day. I was at home alone that morning when I was alerted that planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. Along with much of the country, I spent the day glued to the TV set trying to understand what was happening, even as the horror sunk in.
The next Sunday, the adult classes of our church gathered together for a time to process feelings and concerns. As people were invited to offer their thoughts and feelings, one lovely woman spoke out with hurt, confusion, and shock in her voice. "I just don't understand why anyone would want to attack us. We are such good people."
She was a good person. She helped to start a preschool for the community and joyfully cared for little children. She assisted in refugee resettlement, sorting the donated clothes to be distributed. She was very active in our women's group, and especially the aspects related to mission and caring for those less fortunate. She was a good person, as were all the others gathered in that room. She trusted that our national leaders were good persons and that their international policies were good and that the United States was a force for good in the world. "Why would anyone want to attack us? We are such good people."
I spent most of my childhood in an impoverished African country as a missionary kid, returning to the United States for college. This often causes me to view news from a global perspective outside the United States, rather than simply as a citizen within. In the moments following her statement, I thought of the development of the atomic bomb and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I thought of the Vietnam war. Many such thoughts flew through my mind. Yes, all these people are good people, but too often our international policies as a military superpower are only for our own national self-interest and have resulted in destruction and suffering for others.
As a facilitator of that gathering, I can't actually remember how I responded to her comment. I think I probably didn't say anything, because it wasn't the right time to critique our nation. At times of crisis and shock, allowing the free flow of feelings and listening seems the best response. Quickly across the country came a heightened resurgence of patriotism, extolling the goodness of our country. It was hard for anyone to hear the moderating voices of faith leaders who dared to speak out.
Almost the whole world was shocked and sympathetic toward the United States during those early days. Expressions of sympathy and concern poured in from across the globe. For a number of weeks, we didn't know how our national leaders would respond. I was hopeful that with the goodwill of most of the world, the United States would take actions that held terrorists accountable, but through diplomatic and law enforcement channels. Instead, on October 7, the United States launched airstrikes on Afghanistan for harboring terrorists, and then moved on to invade Iraq in March of 2003. Our leaders had chosen violent revenge in the way a military superpower deemed best. I was deeply disappointed but should not have been surprised, as it simply reflected our nation's belief that violence can make things right.
In fact, the wars resulting from 9/11 demonstrate the utter futility of seeking to address evil and make a better world through violence and war. Brown University's Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs initiated the Costs of War Project in 2010. Over 50 scholars, human rights practitioners, legal experts, and physicians researched and made public the costs of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the related violence in Syria and Pakistan. Here is a brief summary of what they have found:
- Over 929,000 people have died in the post-9/11 wars due to direct war violence, and several times as many due to the reverberating effects of war
- Over387,000civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
- 38 million— the number of war refugees and displaced persons
- The US federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $8 trillion
- The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 85 countries
- The wars have been accompanied by violations of human rights and civil liberties, in the U.S. and abroad (https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/)
As the twenty years of war in Afghanistan have now chaotically come to an end, I hope our nation and we as people of faith will take time to reflect more deeply on these realities in light of our values. While retribution was exhibited within the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus explicitly rejected it. Instead of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," Jesus taught us to nonviolently resist an evildoer and love our enemies (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-45). Although many would like to confine his words to personal ethics, they say much of relevance for international conflicts as well. Returning violence for violence simply continues a deepening spiral of death and destruction. And in the process, the righteously angry revenger becomes the evil that is being avenged. The Apostle Paul echoes the words of Jesus. "Do not repay anyone evil for evil...Beloved, never avenge yourselves...Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12: 17,19, 21).
As we remember, let us mourn not only for those who died in 9/11, but also for the many others who have died or been displaced due to the violent means by which our nation chose to respond. May we as people of faith learn and champion the ways of peace, so that we do not passively accept our government choosing the violence of war, but rather require that good means be used to overcome evil.
September 12, 2021
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Dianne C. Shumaker Chair for Peace and Justice