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What have we learned since September 11, 2001

What have we learned since September 11, 2001

It is difficult to believe that ten years have passed since the attacks by terrorists on New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.

At that time, it was common to hear the statement, "Nothing will be the same."  As we look back over the last ten years, it is certainly true that our world and our lives are different since September 11, 2001.

One of the ways America chose to respond to what happened on September 11th was to go to war.  Not only were there military strikes against the terrorists and the Taliban who had harbored them in Afghanistan, but also there was an invasion and occupation in Iraq.  Military action in Afghanistan turned into a continuous presence under two presidents.  I remember the war fever which swept the country when America invaded Iraq.  The mass media rarely offered critical journalism during the drumbeat to war.  Country music stations became citadels of jingoism.  Very few politicians opposed the invasion.  Do we have any regrets today about the lives of Americans and Iraqis that have been lost or ruined and the billions of dollars that have been spend on involvement in a nation that had nothing to do with what happened on September 11th?   Yes, it is good that Saddam's thuggish reign is over, but we shall find out what it means to have created a new client state of Iran.   Most of us believe that a nation whose citizens are attacked by terrorists has a moral right to use force to resist evil and protect the innocent.  Yet force has to employed with wisdom.  I do not think we rightly honor the victims on September 11th unless we are willing to learn from the terrible errors we committed in our response to September 11th.

We Americans often act as if we are immune to the works of Providence in human history.  That is, we think we can bend events to our will, and we will use force to do so.  In his magnificient book, Christianity and History (Scribners, 1950), historian Herbert Butterfield demonstrated how history itself reveals the reality of a Providence at work within it.  Butterfield wrote, "Somewhere or other there exists a point at which our ambitions, however well-meaning, do become a defiance of the providential order.  At that point there would be better hope for the world if we would try to see rather how to make the best of it, and accept some of our limits and discomforts as the decree of Providence, lest by too feverish an activity we only make matters worse." 

Another way we responded to September 11th was to become more aware of what really matters in our personal lives.  There was an upsurge in feelings about family, friends and even church.  This attempt to recover more basic values did not seem to last long.  It seemed that after a brief while we returned to our old consumerist ways.  If we won't even pay for our wars as we are fighting them, then we are not likely to be very wise about spending and debt in the rest of our lives.    Of course, the rules of Providence intervened here as well:  our greed blew up a bubble that burst in our face.  Since then it does indeed seem that we are now getting serious about the recovery of genuine values that we used to talk and sing about immediately after September 11th.  I may be wrong, but I do think that there is a fundamental shift in values going on.  I do not know how deep and wide it is, or exactly how it will manifest itself, but I suspect that we are going to be a less materialistic people and that we are going to want to invest more of oursleves in improving our own local communities.

A lot has happened in ten years.  This anniversary is a good time to stop and ask ourselves what we have learned from our experience.  Without minimizing external threats to our nation or to any other nation, there is still a lot of wisdom in the saying from the old comic strip Pogo, " We have met the enemy, and he is us."  And, we become our own enemy when we dare to flaunt the laws of Providence at work in history and presume that we do not have to live with limits or obey the moral norms which are evident in experience of human history.