Since I started this blog in 2007, I haven’t written a specific 9/11-oriented post on one of the anniversaries that have passed since then. But when the attacks happened in 2001, I was running a personal site on Geocities. It was really awful. I even used Comic Sans at the time. But I did write some things in the days immediately following 9/11, and this year my mind was brought back to those writings.
This year strikes me as different than the last several, probably mainly because of the anti-Muslim talk that is plaguing our country these days, and the inability that so many folks have to separate fundamentalists who fly into buildings from folks who want to build a community center, and the ridiculous desire to burn the Koran in response to that community center.
In 2001, I was a freshman in college. A few months before, I had attended Cornerstone Festival for the first time, and one of the bands I saw there was Ballydowse. Ballydowse was a Celtic punk band based at JPUSA, the intentional community on the north side of Chicago that puts the festival on each year. Ballydowse sang songs about politics, economics, and society that were (and in general still are) very unique. They sang songs about Oscar Romero, George Macdonald, Iraq and the sanctions we placed on it, and a number of other such topics. They also operated a section of their website that provided a place for dialogue about these and other issues.
In the first couple of days after the attacks happened, the lead vocalist wrote a beautiful piece in response, seeking to encourage us to be slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to listen; in the hopes that we would have sought to respond in the right ways, rather than to answer terror with terror. While his words, being from a band in an underground music scene, went unheeded in the national conversation, they changed my life forever. Ballydowse’s website has been down for years, and the band no longer exists, but this year I managed to find an archived copy of his article. I post it here, as the formatting isn’t what it was when the site was operating, and it’s not very easy to find.
The power and beauty of his words have not been lost in these last nine years.
These were my thoughts shortly after the World Trade Centers horror. Since then too few have been rescued, and the death toll is in the thousands. It is very sad and our prayers go out to those families.
It is hard to begin speaking when so many arms are emptied of loved ones and for them our hearts feel only silent grief. It has been just a few short days since the world turned and Terror murdered so many. The Towers were no longer symbols. Suddenly, we realized that they were nothing, but the lives they contained were everything. These unique lives cannot be replaced even if a thousand towers, twice as high, rise again in our cities.
Who among us can describe such loss? The necessary transformation to a numerical body count will only be a vulgarization. Each one of my children, alone and unaided, outweighs the world. How can a mere number shroud such unfathomable depths of vanished possibilities? As the dead are gathered- and we hope against hope that more survivors will be found-already we know that over three hundred firefighters, police officers, and emergency personal were lost. This world is hard enough to doctor without this terror. The pain and accidents that come with our freedom fill the days of the service people with enough grief, we all wonder why humanity elects to add to such a brimming cup. As the days go on the numbers will rise. God be with these families and let us offer whatever we can, for those who still struggle in the hospitals wards or beneath the rubble and for those who mourn. That is our first response.
Beyond that let us be slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to listen. The talk today is full of payments long due and vengeance swift preparing. As to the payments long due, it is one thing to speak of a nation’s collective responsibility for its words and deeds. It is another to overturn all constructive foundations that any such talk must have and embrace the murder. Let this point be clear- there is no past actions or present policies that can justify the targeting of innocent civilians in any nation’s cities. No cries to call America to justice for its past actions can be mingled with blood arbitrarily drawn from the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters of this land. The murders in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania contribute only to the glory of evil. The historical dynamics, the discussion of what lies between the birth and death of those who commit such deeds may form a bridge to understanding the temptations of rage but at the crossing of the line into terror, the actors must be left naked without excuse. Murderous actions cannot be dignified as necessities, they must remain unable to drown out the still small voice that offers each of us freedom to overcome our past.
However, to the cries for vengeance, we say remember the words of Chesterton, that shipwrecks are not avoided by doing Something, but by doing the right thing. We have done many a something these past years and have suffered no small number of shipwrecks. Yes. We must respond, but responding we must look to caution and restraint now more than ever. We have been deceived before. Pain and fear will grasp for the relief at hand, be it a healing courage or the maudlin delusions. The murder must be answered. This Terror is without excuse and it is our rightful enemy. But Terror is a coward and likes nothing more but to slip out the back door at the last minute only to re-enter through the front, guiding the mob and ensuring that all hopes of ending its eternal return are incinerated by the torches of vengeance.
Many voices are hearkening back to another day of infamy, to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Imperial Admiral Yamamoto had engineered the attack despite his misgivings about war with America. Shortly after the attack he is quoted as saying in regret “We have awakened a sleeping giant and have instilled in him a terrible resolve.” We are awake and the giant is forming. But there are giants and there are giants. Which giant we awaken and to what end our resolve will be the measure of our society.
This attack was rooted in hatred, in the ability of evil to remove all threads of empathy with the victim. It relied upon black and white delusions where god or virtue is completely united with the desired action. Terror seeks a specific response. Like calls to like. We must think long and hard about our response and refuse to awaken the giant that Terror desires for its company.
Whatever offer of true comfort for our grieving families, whatever sacrifice it takes to prevent actions such as this, we must make. Save the one that will be most tempting and most counter to true need. “We are never in greater danger than in moments when we deceive ourselves as to the real nature of a threat and when we summon all our energies for defense against the void while the Enemy approaches from behind” wrote Denis De Rougemont shortly after Hitler was driven from France. “It is the Devil who invents our moral sophistries, blots out our categories, transforms that habitual sin into a delirious “virtue”, into a fit of false innocence, into an exaltation of destructive power.” We must not offer our compliments to the Terror. We must not awaken it in ourselves.
Hannah Arendt, in the years after the Holocaust said how often people would come and tell her that they were ashamed to be Germans. She answered that she was ashamed to be human. Tuesday, as lives were hijacked and sacrificed to violence and force I was ashamed to be human. As desperate people, themselves no strangers to grief, danced in celebration I was ashamed to be human. And this morning, as Arab Americans who grieve along with us began to receive death threats in the name of freedom I was ashamed to be human.
The great myth of injustice has been it ability to instill moral strength with every lash of its whip. When men and women are placed beneath grief and pain, the outgrowth is not always noble. Any war against terror that does not seek to guarantee a continual renewal of enemies will demand to know whether the suggested tactics truly uproot more than they seed. We have laid siege to nations and encampments only to harvest hate. Let us seek to starve hate and see if we might not reap something desirable for our children’s future. No more bitter rage and collateral damages. The price of each human life must be marked according to its irreplaceable and unrepeatable value. And from this day forward any voice that says “Yes such and such is innocent of this crime, but the price of their lives is worth the reward”- that voice will be recognized as the call to seed terror and a great cry should rise against such tactics.
We cannot hope for absolute security. The chief weapon of terror is the human mind and a society secured against it absolutely is a cemetery. But, with Camus, we can resolve never to legitimize the terror. We are not speaking of forsaking action to prevent or answer terror. We are asking that we refuse any means that cannot be reconciled with the ends we propose. If the end we desire is the rule of justice then let the means be ruled by that same justice. If the end we desire is the rule of violence and vengeance unchecked then by all means we know what we can do to accommodate that desire.
Within hours of the horror voices are rising saying that for too long we have allowed security to take a back seat to civil liberties and that those days should end. Is Democracy to be defended by its death? Or is its pulse so low that a bed or a grave is of little difference? Proclamations of “We are one!” may sell papers but do not let the instant homogenizers sell the tensions and differences between us, for the tension is democracy itself. Now more than ever we must resist propaganda and support calm dialogue that does no violence to our plurality. To borrow from Pierre Joseph Proudhon, “in nations as in children reason seeks unity in all things, simplicity, uniformity, identity” but when the situation is not elementary, simple answers are popular lies. Without full depth of perspectives unbalance will drive us in circles slowly sinking beneath our own weight. Terror thrives when the exchange of ideas is replaced by “that august silence of all perfect orders” that Camus spoke of when “nothing anybody says will rouse the least echo in another’s mind.” If this is the unity that we are tempted with, it must be denied.
But that is not to say we might not come together and accomplish something. The self sacrifices that have filled the past days, the drama of flight 93 to the weary work in New York, have answered our shame with no small hope. If we did not rise to respond to this, if seeing these children wondering when mother or father was coming home we did not feel the fury we would not be human. But such precious worth cannot be entrusted to fury. Rather than surrendering to the fury, we must speak and act with power. That power will only arise where men and women speak and act together “where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.” We must forsake the doing of something and begin seeking right things to do. If we answer terror with terror, again deluded that a salty spring will bring fresh water, we send the vicious circle of eternal return around again.
Gustav Landauer said in times like these we must “be the type of innovators in whose anticipatory imagination that which [we] want to create already lives as something finished, tried and tasted, and anchored in the past, in primeval and sacred life. Therefore let us destroy mainly by means of the gentle permanent and binding reality that we build.” Let us starve the Terror by binding ourselves not to become it. Let us seek the actors of this terror and with severity end these actions but let us do nothing without the remembrance that children are not born ready to hurl themselves and others in fury against steel and concrete. It takes an entire species to allow such pressures to build and such techniques to be mastered. Those who did these things are uniquely responsible but we are all involved. Let us rely on the gentle permanence of humility and build a sense of forgiveness, by daring to ask what sort of pressures tempt humans to become bombs and why so many trace those pressures to these shores. And in turn acknowledging whatever honest examination uncovers. As we promise to answer the actions of others, as we must, let us promise to answer for our own as well.
These words were penned by Hannah Arendt on Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility half a century ago as the world still reeled in the horrors of the Third Reich. That her conclusions speak so fluently to us today bears witness to how little we have learned. She describes the only giant we may safely awaken.
“To follow a non-imperialistic policy and maintain a non-racist faith becomes daily more difficult because it becomes daily clearer how great a burden mankind is for man. Perhaps those Jews, to whose forefathers we owe the first conception of the idea of humanity, know something about that burden when each year they used to say “Our Father and King, we have sinned before you,” taking not only the sins of their own community but all human offenses upon themselves. Those who today are ready to follow this road in a modern version do not content themselves with the hypocritical confession, ‘God be thanked, I am not like that,’ in horror at the undreamed of potentialities of the [characteristics of terror]. Rather, in fear and trembling, have they finally realized of what man is capable- and this is indeed the precondition of any modern political thinking. Such persons will not serve very well as functionaries of vengeance. This, however, is certain: Upon them and only upon them, who are filled with a genuine fear of the inescapable guilt of the human race, can there be any reliance when it comes to fighting fearlessly, uncompromisingly, everywhere against the incalculable evil that men are capable of bringing about.
Jonathan Stegall is a web designer and emergent / emerging follower of Jesus currently living in Atlanta, seeking to abide in the creative tension between theology, spirituality, design, and justice.
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