Published in The Times of Trenton 9/11/11
Ten years ago, we Americans suffered the most traumatic pain in living memory. Unlike the agonizingly long ramp-up we knowingly experience before full-scale wars, the al Qaeda attacks came literally out of the blue. Thousands of our friends and neighbors were murdered before our eyes, massacred in a rain of horror we will never erase from our minds. The pain was immediate. The pain was acute. The pain is forever with us.
Our vulnerability to this attack was not something predetermined. Our vulnerability was congenital — the consequence of our being an open society that expects the best from ourselves and others, choosing not to become stunted within a hardened fortress, but opting, instead, to embrace what the world has to offer. Even if that sometimes costs us. Dearly.
I have deep respect for the term “growing pains.” Over the course of my long lifetime, the truth it conveys has been reaffirmed many times: Important growth always occasions some pain. This is not to say that all pain results in growth; pure suffering doesn’t automatically yield anything worthwhile. But growth — the movement from one stage to a better one — always necessitates the painful loss of something precious: namely, a reassuringly predictable status quo.
Ten years later, the question is whether the pain of Sept. 11, 2001 is a “growing pain.” The answer depends on whether what we are learning is moving us to a better place. Certainly, we have learned that our open borders offer scant deterrence to those who wish us ill. And we have learned that there are fanatical parties at large in the world who do wish us ill, many from outside our borders, but some from within them, too. These lessons are rather self-evident, and we seem to be making efforts to erect fresh defenses against future atrocities.
But there are deeper lessons I yearn to harvest, lessons that might enhance our understanding of America’s impact in this increasingly intimate global community where boundaries are now all but negligible.
I myself have experienced several growing pains vis-à-vis my beloved country. The first I recall came in May 1960, when President Eisenhower blatantly lied to American citizens about an incident involving our U-2 spy plane, which was downed while over Sverdlovsk, Russia. I wasn’t shocked about the spying; I was shocked that our president would lie to us. Subsequent years have provided all too many additional opportunities to become sadly accustomed to official deception from many levels of government (not to mention the world of business).
But on Sept. 11, 2001, I was still naïve enough to be astonished by the television coverage of massive crowds in foreign cities rejoicing as they watched the World Trade Centers transformed into colossal funeral pyres. Who could possibly cheer as they witnessed thousands of human lives being incinerated?
Despite my limitless contempt for Osama bin Laden, I studied his litany of presumed offenses by America against his native Saudi Arabia, by which he justified his 9/11 attack. From his point of view, Americans had defiled his homeland through myriad economic exploitations and cultural contaminations. The charges were uncomfortably resonant with the muffled complaints we have heard for generations from citizens of banana republics and other countries who felt that American influence in their lands was broad and intrusive and relentless and occasionally ruthless — charges not easily refuted, sometimes.
But I remembered something that my professor of theology once told us: Heretics are rarely wrong in what they assert. Their error is in taking a portion of the truth and absolutizing it to represent the entirety of truth. Not wrong in what they affirm, they err in what they deny. Their depiction lacks balance and wholeness. Similarly, Osama bin Laden chose to absolutize certain irrefutable impacts of American presence and react to them as though they were the entire truth and deserved to be dealt with accordingly.
The threat of such distorted thinking is always with us. And so, too, are our international actions that may trigger havoc. We now live in a world where, thanks to instantaneous communications and commercial interdependence, the proverbial flutter of a butterfly wing in one continent really may give birth to a tsunami half a globe away. We can protect ourselves to a degree from intemperate reactions by enhancing our defenses and our upstream intelligence to nip emerging attacks in the bud. This is essential. But it is equally essential that we reassess America’s own practices and policies in this increasingly volatile and intimate global village. The Declaration of Independence reflected “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Being respectful of such opinions as we pursue our legitimate interests today will increase the peacefulness of the human community our children inherit tomorrow. What better way to ensure that those whose lives were lost on 9/11 did not die in vain?