Posts Tagged ‘Altruism’

My 9/11 Reflections (this is a long one)

September 9, 2011

My 9/11 Reflections


Good Lord, has it been ten years?

Ten years ago I was finishing up my doctoral thesis and the stay-home day parent for my kids while my wife worked days for the church.  At night it was her turn to be parent while I taught Religion in America and Introduction to Ethics at the local community college.  So I was mostly on a nocturnal schedule.  I had no idea what was going on until hours later, when I woke up and played the phone message from my sister assuring me that she was all right.  Why wouldn’t she be all right?  What could be wrong?  What was going on?  I found out as soon as I turned on the television, of course.  She was at the State Department, and everyone had been sent home after a plane hit the Pentagon a few miles away.  Now she was home with her husband waiting to see if any more planes would hit, if any of her friends would die.  And I still had children to care for that day, piano lessons and school buses and all the rest.  School was cancelled the next day, and we had a departmental meeting to determine how we could help our students.  Of course, I rewrote my syllabus:  we wouldn’t be waiting until the end of the course to discuss Islam this year.

I remember how even MTV, which pretty much has always glorified excess, self-indulgence and generally short-term thinking in all its forms, suddenly became one of the best sources explaining Islam to its viewers.  I remember Dan Rather on the Letterman show, nearly breaking down in tears.  I remember Jon Stewart saying that he used to look out his window and see the World Trade Center.  “Now,” he said, “I look out and see the Statue of Liberty.  You can’t beat that.”

That was what most of us felt:  pain, anger, fear, but also an immense love for our country, maybe deeper than we’d ever realized now that someone was trying to take it all away from us.  There were, however, stupid people.  I remember them too.  On the left, we had idiots like Ward Churchill, who said the terrorist attacks were because of our nation’s foreign policy.  On the right, we had idiots like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, saying the attacks were because God was punishing us for the feminists and liberals.  I’d already read enough about Islam, in seminary and as part of my teaching for five years, to know that both of these were wrong.  Way back before the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini had complained that Muslims were “Westoxified:”  intoxicated on Western things and values, like MTV and women being allowed fully human status in society.  The only way to stop the rising and growing Muslim bourgeoisie from developing bourgeoisie values, he taught, was for Muslims to destroy the West, and in particular to destroy or at least neutralize the United States, which he saw as the leader of the industrialized, capitalist, democratic world he so hated.  And in the Sunni world, bin Laden had taken up that same line of reasoning:  that if the U.S. was the source of modern values around the world, the only way to keep Muslims in a truly primitive mindset was to eliminate that cultural influence.  So I knew it wasn’t God’s judgment on us; while the U.S. isn’t perfect, the idea that God would kill thousands of innocent people because there were liberals in the nation is just obscene.  And the thought that bin Laden had any specific motive for the attack is absurd; his gripe is that we breath the air Allah intended only for Salafi Muslims, and that our culture is so powerful and so inviting that the only way to keep the whole world from embracing it is to destroy it utterly.  It couldn’t possibly be the case that Muslims were even then becoming more prosperous and more politically aware, and their rising bourgeois expectations were completely natural and spontaneous!

So we had some American idiots on both sides of the Culture Wars, trying to say how the terrorist attacks were because of the other side.  But most of us, including me, were simply outraged that anyone would be in such a hurry to return to the partisanship, the shallowness, the shortsightedness and the selfishness of September 10, 2001.  We knew, even if Churchill and Falwell didn’t, that we had real enemies out there; we weren’t in a hurry to create or hold onto enemies at home.  We all felt a tremendous unity.  I have to go back now and check old news stories to verify that, so little is that feeling evident today.  At the time, Churchill and Falwell and all of those who were so eager to join the terrorists in trying to tear our country apart were vilified; Falwell apologized and Churchill was fired.  We were all in this together, we knew, and whether you like the guy on the seat next to you or not you all have to row together or the ship’s going down in the storm.

Dan Rather is known for many things; blind allegiance to the State isn’t one of them.  But that night on Letterman, he said, “George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions … wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where,” …… “He’ll make the call.”  And that’s how all of us felt.  As a Floridian who voted for Gore—-I think—–I had serious doubts about his legitimacy.  I didn’t base it on phony-baloney doubts about his birth certificate; I had real reasons to wonder whether the votes had been tallied properly.  But at that moment, I knew we had to put all that aside.  Gays, straights, religious, atheists, men, women, black, white, Christian, Muslim—-all Americans had to come together, and by and large most wanted to come together.

The other thing I remember is how much I wanted to help.  Again, I have to go back and look at news stories; these days selfishness is a virtue (literally; Ayn Rand is the most important philosopher to the Right, and she has a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness).  Today I am preparing my lesson for tomorrow in Introduction to Ethics, and we’re talking about altruism.  On Religion and Ethics Newsweekly there was a marvelous story on the subject some years ago.[1]  As one of the subjects of the interview put it:


The immediate response when people from all over the world just left their normal lives, got in cars, got on planes, and came to New York to say, “How can I help?”….. The way we were — people were running in to sacrifice themselves for others. It was like a huge revelation of how precious we are to each other, even total strangers. To me that is where God was in this.



That is what we were:  a nation wanting to help, to help total strangers, even people we would have scorned a day earlier.  My wife and I donated money to help the victims.  We were also, I think, just more caring in general.  And I wished I could do more, wished someone would ask me to do more.

But again, from the start there was the entrenched, pre-9/11 mentality at work.  While the partisanship and the finger-pointing and divisiveness came from both ends of the political spectrum, the push towards a return to selfishness came almost entirely from conservatives, and most troublingly, from our government.  Bush’s speech to Congress on September 21, 2001 was wonderful in recalling all of us, as Americans and even as civilized people around the world, to join together against the forces of violence and division and destruction.  But that speech, and the others from that time, never told us what we could do.  I was told to stay home, to buy things to revive the economy, to keep living my life as I always had, to accept a tax cut, and in short to just sit back and let the government take care of everything.  I really felt, and still feel, that the Bush administration thought we were all still too childish to accept a call to strive and do.  The Afghan war was to be fought almost risk-free, with very few Americans on the ground.  And really, that probably was for the best since the Afghans would have just seen a hundred thousand American troops as proof that we were planning to conquer and occupy them as the Soviets had tried.  But there was also that undercurrent that the American public couldn’t take casualties, and that it was better to fight a war by proxy than to risk even one casualty because we were too soft to endure it, too fickle to put up with it.  I think they sold us short on that; at that time I think we would have gladly fought as long as our grandfathers had fought the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.  As Yamamoto had said at that time, we could have said to the Taliban:  you have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.  But our own government was afraid to test our resolve.

If our government had called us to a real wartime effort, we would have done anything:  rebuild our infrastructure so we’d have an economy that would dominate the world for the next hundred years, paid taxes to buy more body armor for our troops and to support our soldiers adequately when they came home, anything. At the very least, we could have postponed the tax cut so we would all have felt like we were doing our part.  But as it turned out, the government didn’t have a part for us to do.  The only sacrifice we were asked to make was of our privacy, our civil liberties, and our rights as Americans to due process and habeas corpus and the other rights our Founding Fathers had fought, killed and died for.  They didn’t fight for lower taxes; they fought for the right to tax themselves, for a representative government, but not for an absence of government or of responsibility to it.  Today, if you talk about your “rights” you’re scorned as selfish, unpatriotic or at least naïve; but if you demand your taxes be cut even lower than the historically all-time low rate they already are, you’re a patriot like the ones at Boston Harbor.

Our leaders were afraid to call upon “the better angels of our nature;” instead they appealed to our basest instincts, fear and partisanship and selfishness.  When the call came for war against Iraq, I initially supported it; but it was obvious to me that again, our government was treating us like babies.  Any idiot could see that when Rumsfeld and Cheney told us the war would be over in six weeks and that Iraqi reconstruction would pay for itself, and that we might even make a profit out of the whole thing, that they were either liars or fools.  An eight-year old child could have seen that if the Iraqis chose to blow up their own oil, the oil profits would not be there to pay us back for rebuilding their country.  That’s what we would have done if some foreign occupier had come into our country; how could it have been a surprise to them?  Did they really think it would be like the U.S. Army marching into Paris in 1944?  Did they not see that it might be more like the welcome we got when we crossed the Rhine?  They aren’t that dumb.  They simply believed that the war against Iraq was a good idea, and that if we citizens knew the true costs likely to be demanded of us that we would refuse to do this important thing, so we needed to be lied to, and treated like silly children who won’t take their medicine unless they get a lollipop.

Is it any wonder that today, ten years later, the most amazing thing is how little has changed?  As one headline puts it, Post-9/11 ‘new normal’ looks much like old.”[2]  And in fact, it does: just as partisan, just as petty, just as selfish, just as cynical, just as depressing as it did before the shock and pain of those attacks taught us that we are all Americans, and that as Americans and just as decent human beings there are things that bind us together that matter more than the things that push us apart.

Looking back after ten years, I see that we had an opportunity to become the generation that our grandchildren would have called “The Greatest.”  We didn’t miss that opportunity.  We fled it at warp speed.  Too many of our pundits and political and religious leaders were terrified of giving up the Culture Wars.  They preferred the pre-9/11 mentality, which they were used to and which had rewarded them so well.  I didn’t vote for Obama in the primary; I voted Hillary.  I mention that just to emphasize that I was not and am not the empty-headed romantic that the cynical, selfish liars have tried to claim all Americans who don’t drink their tea are.  I am a true patriot; one thing 9/11 taught me is that I love this country and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had because of it.  It is worth fighting for, and it is worth paying for.  Somehow, being willing to pay for your country has become unpatriotic.  However, being willing to pay more in payroll taxes so the CEO of the bank that foreclosed on your house can have a tax cut—that is patriotic.  When I think of the past, when I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Into the Fire,” or watch my tape of the National Memorial Service, I still get choked up.  But when I look at today, I see a nation that has come through a culture war, and the culture lost.  Bin Laden attacked us because he thought he could bankrupt us, and that the fifty states would turn on each other and dissolve our Union.  That was insane.  But after eight years of tax cuts we couldn’t afford and still can’t, we seem much closer to realizing his dream.  We have the so-called patriots of Oklahoma openly discussing taking up arms against their own elected government.[3]  We have a candidate for President who has said that Texas has a right to secede and that if the government elected by the majority of Americans doesn’t suit Texans, they might do so.[4]  People who call themselves Christians ridicule “Kumbayah.”  Paul wrote, “These three things abide:  faith, hope and love”—–but today “hope” is a dirty word.  The Bible says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” and “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”—-but today “change” is a dirty word (Isa 43:19;  2 Cor 5:17).

So yes, I was excited when we had a President who called out for hope and change.  If the president before him had done that, we’d still have a Republican in the White House.  Instead, the party of hopelessness and inertia fought tooth and claw for its own power.   So now, after ten years, I still feel pain and loss when I think back to those days; but ten years later, I feel pain and loss now, too.  Bin Laden sought to divide and bankrupt this nation, and now thanks to the Tea Party we are closer than ever to that very thing happening.  I mourn the loss of what we could have been, what we should have become after 9/11.  It breaks my heart and it fills me with dread.  Once you were a terrorist if you suggested taking up arms against the government of the United States; now advocating the very things bin Laden did makes you a tea-party patriot.  I fear for my nation more deeply than I did then, since I fear treason more than any foreign enemy.  And I weep when I see how simple logical thought has died, how people can advocate treason and be thought patriots, can embrace the philosophies of atheists like Ayn Rand and be called Christians, or can drop out of college, mock Nobel Prize winning scientists and economists, and be thought wise and responsible.  Patriotism is dying, my country is bleeding out its life’s blood, and even the words that could cry alarm or give aid are turned inside-out and upside-down.  It’s as if our whole nation has aphasia, so no matter what anyone says at this point it won’t matter.  I wonder if this is the way Babel fell (Gen. 11:6-7)?

Well, what can I say?  I am worried for my country, and for the world, and for my Christian faith, all of which are perverted and imperiled by the elevation of selfishness and cowardliness and sloth to supreme virtues, while altruism and courage and the urge to do great things are mocked by the very people who claim to be “patriots” and to speak to and for God.  The Hell-spawn who dreamed up the 9/11 attacks must be delighted to see their plan at long last coming to fulfillment, thanks to those who claim to be the most fervent patriots and Christians.  Seriously, when Ayn Rand can say, “There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them;” and the Satanic Bible can say, “Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates!” and no one sees the parallel, but Rand’s philosophy and language (like calling the poor “moochers and leeches”) is taken up by those who claim to be the true patriots and true Christians (though Christ called the poor children of God)——how can any thinking, feeling person not mourn and worry?  If even the leaders of the Religious Right, the most influential pastors and preachers, embrace Rand’s philosophy though it resembles nothing so much as Satanism, then we should all weep—-for our nation, for our faith, and for the loss of our minds.

[1] Lucky Severson, “Altruism,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly; first aired March 24, 2006 ( episode 930; accessed September 7, 2011

[2] Calvin Woodward, “Post-9/11 ‘New Normal’ Looks Much Like Old;” Associated Press Sept. 5, 2011 (

[3] Sean Murphy and Tim Talley, “Oklahoma Tea Party Plans to Form Armed Militia,” The Huffington Post April 12, 2010 ( downloaded September 7, 2011

[4] Associated Press, “Gov. Rick Perry:  Texas Could Secede, Leave Union;”  The Huffington Post April 15, 2009 (