Reflecting on September 11, 2001—Then and now

Ted Grimsrud—September 8, 2011

It just so happened that I was scheduled to preach at Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, VA, the Sunday after the September 11, 2001 incidents. I was grateful for the challenge of trying to put into words some of what I was feeling and thinking during that very intense time. I ended up submitting an edited version of the sermon to The Mennonite and it was published a few weeks later.

Now, ten years later as I reread that article, I find myself wanting to reiterate what I wrote back then—the call for people of goodwill to continue to grieve the loss of life and other destruction from that terrible moment and to continue to critique the American way of Empire that helped precipitate those incidents.

Certainly, the circle of grief-worthy events directly related to 9-11 has continued to expand greatly as the United States responded to the terrible violence of 9-11 with wave after wave of even more terrible violence in Afghanistan (and Iraq). Few people would have imagined in 2001 that these waves of violence would still be growing an entire decade later.

So, now, even more than was the case ten years ago (if that is possible), critique is necessary. The American way of Empire has dragged our nation into an ever-deepening pit of ruin.

One point I made in my 2001 article that seems particularly important to reiterate is how important it is that the grief and critique always go together when responding to these issues. This is what I wrote: “One without the other is either superficial or callous, either subject to manipulation by power politics or subject to unfeeling self-righteousness.” Even now, after ten years of devastation following the extraordinarily short-sighted and self-destructive response to 9-11 by American political leaders, we see a great deal of “grief” called for in remembrance of the losses of ten years ago that is not linked with critique—which leads to powerful manipulation by the powers-that-be that sustain the lack of self-awareness within the American Empire.

At the same time, I find myself troubled by my own tendency toward critique without grief. These past years have brought forth in my spirit a great deal of anger at the actions of my country—fully justifiable I believe. But the anger has not been softened enough by remembering also to grieve the losses experienced by the loved ones of victims of 9-11 and now, also, the loved ones of the thousands of Americans who have lost their lives in the decade of wars that emerged out of 9-11 (many more, tragically, than died in the original incidents ten years ago)—not to mention the many more thousands who survived combat but returned home terribly damaged in body and spirit by their experiences. It is easier to grieve the hundreds of thousands of deaths our war-making has been responsible for in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 So, here is the article from ten years ago. At the end, I will add an afterward with a few further reflections on the ten years since.

Grief and critique: A prophetic approach to the acts of terrorism

Ted Grimsrud

Originally published in The Mennonite (October 2, 2001), 6-7.

The prophet Jeremiah is incredibly relevant for us as we seek to come to terms with the events of Sept. 11. His contribution to our thinking and feeling and responding as people of faith to our current crisis lies in his powerful uniting of two themes.

Jeremiah combined (1) heart-rending grief over the suffering of his fellow citizens with (2) an unapologetic critique of his nation’s idolatry, which had brought on this suffering. Grief and critique–one without the other is either superficial or callous, either subject to manipulation by power politics or subject to unfeeling self-righteousness.

The prophet writes, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9:1).

Jeremiah gives us words for our feelings of horror and sadness at the more than 3,000 violent deaths and the countless other lives that have been turned upside down from this tragedy. You can’t help but be moved to tears over and over as you hear of the heartache, the fears, the anxieties. And think of the people on the ground who received desperate cell-phone calls from loved ones on the hijacked planes.

Such grief is linked with the heart of God. There can be no question that the acts that caused such suffering were evil. There can be no question that the devil was laughing in delight as the planes plowed into their targets.

Yet the prophets would have us do more than grieve. What is sadly and dramatically missing in the god-talk of our nation’s leaders is any sense that these acts of violence–evil as they are–should challenge us to consider repenting of the “American way of life.” Jeremiah was clear that the way of life of his fellow citizens–the images, foreign idols, lies, denial of justice and righteousness–was at the root of their suffering.

The prophets understood the events of their day with some subtlety. They saw God’s finger in the human (and evil) acts of the Babylonian attack of ancient Israel. They portrayed these events as having two levels of meaning–acts of bloodthirsty aggression by human beings sold out to evil, but also expressions of God’s judgment against God’s people and their institutions for the injustice and violence of those people. The prophets understood the occurrence of the evil acts of the Babylonians as a time to look inward with a critical eye.

This is what scattered voices are challenging us to do today as well. I have been enlightened by the responses of some of my international friends. One spoke of watching TV and feeling a sense of internal division. He grieved for the loss of life and condemned those who committed the terrible acts, he said. However, he couldn’t help but think of these acts as retaliation against symbols of American oppression, as violent people responding violently to the violence of the United State.

A Britain-based journalist. John Pilger, in an on-line commentary, mentions just a few of these past acts of violence. On Sept. 9, 2001, just two days before the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, American and British bombers killed eight people in bombing raids over civilian areas of Iraq. About 200,000 Iraqis were killed during the so-called Gulf War in 1991. At least 500,000 more Iraqis, half of them children, have died since then, due to the embargo on Iraq that prevented medical supplies from entering that country. How many Americans know that Osama bin Laden began his “terrorist” work in Afghanistan as a client of the CIA fighting the Russians and that his terrorist training camps were originally built with American money and backing?

Political scientist Chalmers Johnson wrote a prophetic book that came out in 2000, Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire. He details how again and again the United States has supported violence around the world in ways that have in time turned on us with unintended consequences.

Blowback. As rock singer Lou Reed wrote, “If you spit into the wind, it comes back at you twice as hard.”

For people who believe that God’s will for human beings is always wholeness and peace, these next several months and years will be challenging. The prophets give us guidance. Their way was to challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom of their day. As a result, they were called naive and impractical, even irresponsible.

Are we willing to be called naive and impractical, even irresponsible? We may be facing a season such as pacifists faced 60 years ago, the last time U.S. territory was attacked, at Pearl Harbor. They spoke out when they could, but to some degree they had to wait the war out, since few Americans listened to them.

However, think about the prophets. They spoke out when they could; they wrote what they could. And they were ignored. We probably don’t realize how irrelevant they were in their own time because the main records we have are their own writings, not transcripts from the CNN broadcasts of their day. But the words of the prophets were, if you will pardon the expression, time bombs. These were the words that enabled the community of faith to survive.

It may be most hopeful and sustaining to think of our work as being done for two generations from now. That is, pacifists may not be listened to in our society right now. But we must not despair. We have words of enduring value: Love your enemies; beat your swords into plowshares; let justice and peace embrace; there is no way to peace, peace is the way. Let’s continue to think them and speak them and write them, then have hope that they will not return void.

In her book Powers of the Weak, Elizabeth Janeway writes that people without obvious power have two main strategies that will empower us. The first is to disbelieve the story we get from the powers that be. Redemptive violence is a myth, a lie of the devil. We may choose for ourselves how to think of our so-called enemies. Our nature does not require taking an eye for an eye until every eye is blind.

The second strategy is to band together. Let us find communities that will sustain us. I can’t put into words how grateful I have been in recent days for my friends and family, colleagues and email correspondents. I know I will not be alone. Let us join with other Christians, with Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and humanists, who share our conviction that justice and peace matter more than nationality.

Afterword (9/8/11)—I am still proud that I have surely been the only writer in the history of The Mennonite or its predecessor, The Gospel Herald, to quote Lou Reed. If anything, the appropriateness of those few words from Lou is greater now. We have indeed seen over past ten years an extraordinary harvest of destruction to the United States (materially and spiritually) due to “spitting in the wind” so vengefully beginning almost immediately after 9/11/01.

It was a terrible coincidence that I would have referred to past violent American deeds in Iraq prior to 9-11 when I was citing examples of previous American acts of violence. The American legacy of violence against others put the lie to the commonly implied notion that the U.S. was an innocent victim of someone else’s violent acts. Surely the worst expression of the failure of American leaders after 9-11 to take constructive action to bring actual healing following the terrible crimes of that day was visiting the unmeasurable death and destruction upon this self-same country that we had already devastated. Our invasion of Iraq, it has been clear from the time it was first proposed by our government, had nothing whatsoever to do with the incidents of 9-11 even as those incidents opened the door for an invasion numerous American leaders had longed for for years prior to 9-11. But in September 2001 few of us anticipated that an invasion of Iraq could be sold to the American public as a legitimate response to the 9-11 events.

I think now that I might have sounded just a bit overly dramatic in the last several paragraphs of the article, implying that pacifists and other critics of the politics of vengeance and heightened militarism might well be facing a period of persecution. As it turned out, it seems now, we who opposed the violent policies that emerged, were allowed (in a sense) a measure of freedom to express that opposition. I remember mainly frustration from anti-war advocates that our widespread support could not effectively slow the momentum for war. But we did not really suffer much as a consequence of voicing that opposition.

Yet, as I reflect on these dynamics now, I sense that my deeper point was quite accurate. That is, that pacifists and others committed to countering the cycle of violence so prevalent in our nation’s public life would do well to think of their work as being “done for two generations from now.” However we might think of the difficulties in operationalizing genuine peaceable politics in the years following 9-11, they have only gotten more profound in the years since.

It is hard to imagine what would have been more devastating for advocates of peace in 2001 than to look ahead to seven more years of Bush-initiated militarism and death and destruction, then imagine a political uprising that would finally end the Bush nightmare and elect a president known to be opposed to the Iraq war, a seeming advocate of peace himself—and then have this president turn out simply to continue that militarism, death, and destruction. (Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently asserted that “President Barack Obama has come to accept much of the Bush Doctrine despite what he campaigned on in 2008″—my cynical guess is that Obama will use this quote as a campaign asset in the 2012 election.)

However, the demoralizing events of the past ten years only underscore, for those who do genuinely believe in the message of the prophets and of Jesus, the need to trust in the ultimate efficacy of that message. Our efforts to embody it don’t seem very effective. But we don’t know the future. We don’t know how the truth will out over the long run—but we owe it to our children and grandchildren (I now have two grandchildren, neither remotely envisioned in 2001) to remain committed to doing whatever we can to keep the message of peace alive.

One thought on “Reflecting on September 11, 2001—Then and now

  1. Pingback: On 9/11, My Faith, and The State | unique styles away

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