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The Battle for America's Soul  (September 2001)

September 11, 2019

(I wrote this essay within days of the 9/11 tragedy.  I'm sharing it again as a memorial and also because I think its message is at least as timely and urgent as it was then.  The biggest change since then is that, tragically,  love is no longer winning. )

 

The Battle for America's Soul

At the time of the tragedy, I was in Greece, on the idyllic island of Patmos, at the Grotto where the Apostle John received the visions recorded in the Book of Revelation. When I returned to the village about an hour later, and heard the terrible news, the stark contrast between the timeless peace and beauty of the island and the horror taking place in my own country was staggering and incomprehensible.

And yet, as I reflected on the juxtaposition, it seemed strangely appropriate. John, a prisoner of an oppressive government, saw clearly in his visions what we, lulled by the ordinariness of our lives, do not often see until we are slapped in the face by tragedy-that we are at war. John clearly describes a war that is infinitely bigger than Osama bin Laden. A universal, epic war between a lamb and a dragon, between good and evil, love and hatred, truth and lies. A war in which all people and all nations participate on one side or the other.
     
And, thank God, because it could so easily have been different, last week in America, love won. In the self-sacrifice of firemen, policemen and a chaplain who died trying to save those in the buildings, in the courage of the passengers of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania who willingly gave their lives to spare thousands of other lives and perhaps the White House, in rescue workers and medical workers working around the clock to save survivors, in people waiting patiently in lines for hours to give blood, in the powerful and moving inter-faith National Prayer Service on that Friday, and closer to home, in the response of local people, from organizing blood drives, volunteering for the rescue efforts, donating and driving truckloads of supplies to New York-we have seen the power of love triumph over the darkness.

This week thousands of ordinary American people demonstrated extraordinary moral courage which has been an inspiration to the world. And because of them, now more than ever before, I am proud to be an American.

But the battle which began on September 11 is far from over. Indeed, it has barely begun. And now begins the dangerous time, now that heartbeats and our workdays are returning to normal, now that the goal of the searchers is no longer rescue but recovery, now that we must go on with the task of every-day living in a country whose sense of security has been shattered, probably forever, and where so many have lost so much. This is the time when the moral courage which has sustained us will be most sorely tested. There is a danger that we will forget that it is concern and solidarity-it is our freedom, our pluralism, which has made us strong. There is a danger that we will stoop to the reasoning and tactics of the very enemies which we fight.

The evil unleashed by our attackers was born in an insidious hatred which targeted more than buildings, more even than innocent people. By attacking the most potent symbols of our strength, they were targeting the soul of America. They were fighting against our way of life and the foundational principles on which it is based--freedom of religion, "the right of the people peaceably to assemble", freedom of speech, the open-handed and -hearted message of the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor." 

 

They were attempting to rend the colorful, multi-textured fabric of our society which is its strength--to divide group from group and create fear, suspicion and prejudice between us. They were willing to die to further their vision of a world where only one distorted version of an ancient and honorable faith, only one set of twisted values would be tolerated. They died as part of a crusade intended to create a society of oppression and repression, a society in which those who do not conform to their rigid set of beliefs can be imprisoned, tortured, or even executed. They were trying to create in America a world reflected in repressive fundamentalist cultures, where young men gladly destroy themselves because they can in the process destroy innocent people who disagree with their ideology of enforced political and religious orthodoxy.

Any military victory which we achieve against these fanatics would be hollow if we allow this tragedy to make us validate their beliefs or their methods. We cannot fight them with their own weapons. If we do so, they have won, on the only battleground which is important to them, ideology. They will win if in our desire for security we abandon the civil rights and liberties on which our freedom is based. They will win if their attacks cause us to countenance security measures like racial profiling in which passengers could be stopped at an airport or in a public place because they wear a turban or have an Arabic name, or like the identity cards which Britain is adopting, which could lay bare the private lives of ordinary, law-abiding citizens to an invasive government, and could ultimately allow for control and repression of minorities, religious, ethnic and political. 

 

They will win if we stoop to their moral level and allow ourselves to justify any unnecessary killing of innocent, oppressed people in Afghanistan in retaliation for the loss of our innocent civilians. If the loss of our rights and freedoms at home and our morality abroad are the price which we have to pay for security, it is priced too high. The brave men who first fought for this country's freedom obviously thought so. Their bold cry, "Give me liberty or give me death," should resound in our ears, louder even than the explosions at the Twin Towers. The evil behind this atrocity may have taken away our feeling of safety, but it cannot be allowed to take away our freedom or our values. 

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