Nearly every American remembers where they were when they first learned of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Moments of such magnitude have a way of branding our memories. I was leaving my college dorm room the day the earth twitched.
Where were you when you first heard? Or, more importantly, what went through your mind?
In the days that followed, A Chicago Sun-Times religion columnist asked various religious leaders the ominous question we were all wrestling with: “Why would God allow this to happen?” Perhaps the most accurate answer to that question was offered by University of Chicago theologian Marty Martin.
“I don’t know, and nobody does,” he told the Sun-Times.
Martin’s answer allows us to sit in the discomfort of puzzlement, accepting that we can’t know why life unfolds like it does. We will never understand why God refuses to answer the cries of millions of babies in dank orphanages, and we’ll never know why God did not intervene to prevent more than 2,900 deaths that day. Not on this side of eternity, at least.
We are now ten years from normal and still no one can answer that question. But like any event of such magnitude, we stare back through a corridor of time with another inquiry. What, if anything, have we learned? How do we see the world more clearly, and what do we now grasp that previously evaded our reach?
Many writers will no doubt answer this question with lists of their own, but here are a few learned lessons I’ve observed:
Everyone is Vulnerable. Americans were once a bunch of teenagers, content to believe in their own indestructibility and immortality. While misguided, such popular notions were grounded in the reality that nearly 70 years had passed since foreign aggressors attacked America’s homeland. September 11th was a bucket of cold water jolting us from our sleepy haze, awakening us to our own vulnerability.
Perhaps the world hasn’t changed, but we have. Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out that Americans have morphed into a people with “diminished ambitions for security” in a post-9/11 reality where “absolute security is unattainable.” We realize now that no one is completely safe in a globalized, interconnected, digital age—not even citizens of the greatest world powers.
Power Has Shifted. When a handful of terrorists armed with box cutters can cripple the world’s mightiest nation, it says something about the nature of power. It once took a nation as large and ambitious as Russia to frighten us. Now a handful of ill-intentioned individuals—indeed, even one—can fill us with fear.
As Harvard Professor Joseph Nye argues in his book, The Future of Power, “one of the great power shifts of the global information age is the strengthening of non-state actors.” Today, we’re talking about things like digital attacks and dirty bombs, acts of war that can be waged by a single person. The privatization of power has changed the rules, and the world will now have to learn to play by them.
Collaboration is Better than Isolation. Staunch individualism has been an American distinctive for centuries. Nowhere was this ideal tested more directly and shown to fail more miserably than on 9/11. Many experts cite the failure of intelligence agencies to share information as one of the primary reasons why the attack was not prevented. Agencies built walls not bridges, and intelligence doesn’t travel well through walls.
Americans shed individualism in the days following 9/11. Institutionally, we began tearing down the walls that separate national intelligence agencies from themselves and local law enforcement. Within communities, strangers joined together to give blood, mourn, and pray. The latter would not last, but the lesson remains: communication and collaboration is critical to both averting and weathering life’s calamities. If we fail to embrace this lesson, we may see another tragedy: further isolation from each other.
The World is Bigger than America. After the WTC attack, Americans began to realize that what happens outside of our borders is profoundly important. As we educated ourselves about the complexities of the Arab world, we noticed the many problems in those regions and elsewhere that begged for our collective attention. To our collective credit, Americans responded.
In the last decade, private donations to international causes have risen more than four-fold. Microfinance skyrocketed, AIDS relief moved from taboo to priority status, and everyone seems to be championing the global water crisis. As World Vision U.S. President Richard Stearns observes, “Ten years later, we recognize that it is better to embrace the challenges we face globally rather than retreat, build walls, and pretend that America can exist on its own.”
Religious Liberty Must Be Protected. On September 10, 2001, the phrase “religious liberty” mostly referred to constitutional protections for Christians. Religious freedom meant prayer in schools, city hall nativity displays, and praying “in Jesus name” at public high school football games.
On September 12th, this phrase took on new life. Debates ignited over the limits of religious freedom and how the constitution should be applied to Muslim-Americans, forcing us to ask questions we’d not previously considered. Plans to build a “Ground Zero Mosque” were among many tests to this American value, and some failed it, but the spirit of religious liberty has proved resilient. Nearly nine in 10 Americans still agree “America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular.”
Faith Matters. Prior to 9/11, many failed to recognize the significant role religion plays in our lives and beliefs. After the catastrophe, none could deny its prominence. Through the lens of this event, Americans began to realize that faith is a powerful motivator of people—for good or for ill. As one commentator noted, “If you don’t understand faith in the Middle East, you don’t understand the Middle East.” What may be said of the Middle East specifically can be said of people in general. If we don’t understand people’s faith, we can’t understand people. Americans now know how significantly religion shapes domestic and global issues, and as a result, people are taking note of faith and its many nuances.
Marty Martin was correct. Nobody knows why God allowed the events of 9/11. We do know that it grieved God and should us as well. But stopping there leaves us with an incomplete theology of suffering. According to Scripture, there is more to suffering than an occasion for sadness. The apostle Paul said tragedy produces character, perseverance, and hope (Rom. 5:3-4). We can learn much from this event, and well we should.
As followers of Jesus Christ, however, we recognize a greater lesson than any listed above: only the Gospel can truly solve our problems. Unfortunately, this lesson has not been learned by many.
“The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat,” says Methodist bishop Will Willimon, “…when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.”
This calamity highlights problems that will not be solved by well-fought wars, fine-tuned security procedures, or a patriotic chorus sung by Alan Jackson. Only the Gospel can bring the peace and reconciliation we long for. As we stand in the decade long shadow of 9/11, we realize that while we may not know why God allowed this to happen, we can still hope for a better world.