Did 9/11 Make Us Morally 'Better'?

Where are we today, 10 years later? One way to approach the question is to ask whether, as a result of the 9/11 trauma, we have become better people?
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When the first plane smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center I was in the delegates' dining room of the United Nations finishing a talk at the Annual International Prayer Breakfast. My theme was reconciliation. To illustrate just what enmity can bring about, I opened and closed the talk quoting from "Death Fugue," Paul Celan's haunting poem about hellish hatred, which during World War II sent millions of Jews to their "grave in the air." Minutes after I ended, we had to evacuate the building for fear that we ourselves may find our grave in the air as so many in the Twin Towers did. Only hours later, New York was a ghost city, abandoned in a hurry by people in shock. The whole nation, wounded and humiliated, was soon gripped by fear, which gave birth to anger and determination to "kick some ass" internationally, as one of our eloquent political leaders put it. That was then, immediately after the attack. Where are we today, 10 years later?

One way to approach the question is to ask whether, as a result of the 9/11 trauma, we have become better people? "Better" measured by what standard? I am a Christian theologian and although America is not "a Christian nation," many of its citizens are Christians. So I'll use moral standards derived from the Christian faith, which are largely shared by people of other faiths or no faith at all. Have we become better people? Some of us and in some regards have, and others of us and in other regards have not. Let's look first at the debit side of our moral account:

  1. Prejudice. In 2002 39 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of Islam and Muslims, whereas in 2010 that number jumped to 49 percent. The increase was not a fruit of deepened insight but of stronger prejudice. For many Americans, Osama bin Laden is the paradigmatic Muslim, an absurd conviction for anyone who has lived with Muslims. Prejudice is a form of untruthfulness, and untruthfulness is an insidious form of injustice.

  • Multiplication of Enemies. After 9/11 we set out to punish the perpetrators and their supporters, and to ensure our own safety. In the process, we have not diminished the number of our enemies. To the contrary. After 10 years of chasing the dream of impregnability and now trillions of dollars poorer, we have more enemies then ever. From a Christian standpoint, reducing enmity should have been our moral and not just security goal. We have failed.
  • Exceptionalism. In an inter-connected and inter-dependent world we insist on going our own way. We don't hold ourselves accountable to the norms we hold others accountable to -- the moral principle of reciprocity enshrined in the Golden Rule does not apply to us. As a result, we are less liked abroad than ever, and in some parts of the world we have come to be despised as bullying hypocrites.
  • Torture. More than half of American accept torture as a method of truth-finding. In 2009 54% of people who attended church services at least once per week and 60% white Evangelicals agreed that using torture against suspected terrorists is often or sometimes justified. How could those who worship the "tortured God" support torture!?
  • America as Religion. For many Christians, America has become a fierce goddess, who claims more of their loyalty than the God in whose name they have been baptized and whose absolute Lordship they solemnly avow. This is a form of idolatry, which betrays not just God, but precisely that which has helped make America great, namely the courage to examine itself critically in the light of moral demands.
  • And now to the credit side of our moral account, which only sometimes balances the debit side of it:

    1. Civility. Many Christian leaders (Adam Hamilton, Rick Warren, and Brian Zahnd, to name three very different people) have discovered that part of their calling is to promote civility and understanding among all religious groups, including Muslims. Theirs is the following rule: the better Christian you are, the more truthful, just, and loving toward others, including Muslims, you will be.

  • Pluralism. There is a growing sense even among conservative Christians, most pronounced among young evangelicals, that America, far from being a Christian nation, is irreversibly a pluralistic nation. Muslims and Christians, along with people of other faiths and no faith at all, will continue to live side by side under the same roof. When Christians bring their vision of good life into the public realm, they should do so on equal terms as any other group. For that's what it means to treat others as you want them to treat you.
  • Common Values. Even though they recognize that Christianity and Islam are and will remain two very different religions, many are acquiring a clearer sense that these two religions share some fundamental common values -- love of God and love of neighbor and the moral code enshrined in the Ten Commandments. Gradually awareness is growing that it is possible for Christians and Muslims to have meaningful moral debates in public life and to push each other to better articulations of the common good.
  • 9/11 plunged us into in a moral struggle for our soul as a people. What I hope for those of us who consider ourselves Christians is that we will learn to live positively rather than reactively, guided by our own moral vision of life sketched for us in the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, rather than fighting evil with its own methods. Jesus Christ taught: "in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:14); "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44); "blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).

    Miroslav Volf is author of "Allah: A Christian Response" (HarperOne, 2011) and "A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good" (Brazos, 2011).

    This post is part of a collection of interfaith reflections on 9/11 and the decade that followed.

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