Was it happenstance or deliberate that the date of the attack would be our code for emergencies? Who would that emergency call be to? What synchronistic meaning should we see? Out of the clear blue sky, our own airplanes allegedly commandeered by Islamic militant terrorists, smashed into the twin trade towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and into a field in Pennsylvania.
While Americans may have had a somewhat disdainful attitude towards those two boxy towers above the Manhattan skyline, both for their looming, haughty presence and their function of promoting world-wide corporate trade, they suddenly were shocked to lose the famous familiar sight, and stunned to see so many of our innocents go to a sudden and undeserved death.
We were sucker-punched big-time. Terrorist bombings of distant sites came to our very shores, to the heart of our greatest city. Relatively affluent Saudi Islamic militants used our open society to attack it. All our pride and progress, all our aloof insulation and advantage became suddenly vulnerable. Modernity itself seemed to reverse directions, the tall antenna on the building crashing downwards, like a reverse rocket, smashing our illusions of progress, prosperity and power. We suddenly realized: we are not safe; we could die. We would secure no defense in some missile defense shield. It wasn’t a huge coordinated missile attack, nor even a coalition of competing governments sending commandos, but barely competent, highly motivated young men holding little more than secrecy and audacity that slapped the greatest power on earth in the face.
Around the world there was a bit of glee that rich, top dog America got humbled. Like most Americans, I felt shock and anger, and had swellings of patriotic unity. Our “us” was attacked by their “them.” We, the innocent and good, were unjustly injured by distant, dark, and dangerous “others.” Naturally enough, I wanted to wreak revenge on whoever they were, and protect us from such events in the future. But, who to kill? Al Qaeda? The Taliban? Arabs? Muslims? Would bombing distant villages in Afghanistan target the perpetrators of this and future events?
Would having revenge on “them” end it, or would it then serve as rationale for their having revenge on us? When would such cycles end? How would we ever admit we were in part wrong, or are in part sorry? Or, how could they? How likely is truth-telling when each side stays insulated in its own self-serving story?
Part of preaching is prophesizing. Perhaps you won’t like my doing that any more than hearers have ever liked their prophets. They often bring bad news, or prod their hearers with difficult realizations. I know you don’t deserve to hear this. Much of what I’ll say, you will agree with. Perhaps my value is to say out loud what many have felt and thought inside, but privately. There is a din of shame and scorn cast on peacemakers that intimidates them into silence. I cannot be silent. I must speak, not so much to you, as through you to America.
That’s why I have the camera here today. I want to speak to the soul of America. As prophets should, I call America to repent its evil ways and reaffirm its higher ideals. This won’t be easy for you to hear. I am angry. I am disgusted with what our country is becoming. I am ashamed of our leaders and the shallow, mean people who support them. I apologize to the world for our crude, cruel agenda. I want to reach out to those we are demonizing and say I respect you and wish you your lives and land. I am not “united we stand” with our war-mongers. Instead, I challenge America to repent and return to its higher ideals and nobler calling.
Now, lest you react and miss what I mean, let me assure you that my criticism of my culture doesn’t mean I praise or excuse some other. I am appalled at the hijacking of planes and the killing of the innocents. I recoil in disgust at religious fanatics who impose their silly stupid beliefs on those unlucky enough to have to endure them. I hate dictators who repress their people and kill them rather than let them speak. But, because others are evil doesn’t mean we are good. Because there is evil and danger in others doesn’t mean there is none in us.
We prepare to attack the very man we helped create. We gave Hussein the very anthrax he now brandishes. We didn’t mind that he gassed his own people then, but use it as an excuse now. After the First Gulf War we abandoned the Shiite people who rose against him and then were slaughtered. Very different and even antagonistic to Iraq, the Taliban who we fought in Afghanistan, we created earlier in Afghanistan. We spent some three billion dollars in the Reagan era, over a million dollars per soldier, to draw together the most fanatic and autocratic assembly of Muslims ever known. We trained, armed, and egged them on, then abandoned the country we left them in to be tormented by them. We even gave them Stinger missiles, the kind which some say brought down Flight 800 near New York a few years ago.
Our militarists create these monsters, then attack them as if they’re bad and we’re not. Could the agenda in Afghanistan and Iraq be pipelines and oil wells? Well, who’s running this war – the very people from companies that stand to profit mightily. But are Cheney’s connections to energy interests ever questioned or restrained? No. He told us it was none of our business what he secretly did with the energy companies just before Enron, and now says even less. Nor has anyone asked what other countries we will next fear and invade preemptively. Iran? Saudi Arabia should they go to bin Laden’s camp? Syria? Korea? China? They all could have weapons of mass destruction. Does that give us the right to attack? And if we attack Iraq, what poisons will that attack unleash (as opposed to the controlled destruction of them that inspectors have and could accomplish)? And if Arabs or Muslims feel violated and retaliate, will we war on them too?
Were we, the American people, asked about switching to a policy of pre-emptive warfare? Will we, the American people, be secure from any and all angry revenge, be it by bomb, boat, or bug? Will a missile shield defend against domestic anger and terrorism? Will the way of war lead to anything but war?
Terrorists do with meager means what major countries do with their military powers. Our country was founded in terrorism. Desperate marginalized people resort to atrocious acts to get what little attention they might, and wield what little power they have. Considering the few sorts of terrorism we’ve endured so far, and the many forms it could yet take, we must find some other way to respond than the model used of late in Israel and Palestine. We can hit back harder, or sooner, but we cannot remove the resolve others will then have to return the gesture. A few Saudis are one thing. Millions of disgruntled black Muslims in our own country is another. What about the families of poor leftists in Guatemala, El Salvadore and Nicaragua? Would they have any motivation to cause damage or spread diseases here? What about the poor and marginalized here in the USA? What missile defense would protect us from domestic terrorism if it became popular and endemic?
We cannot fully protect ourselves from terrorism, but we can act in such a way as to not incur the wrath of more and more enemies. We should be living with respect and justice to begin with. That eliminates a reason for terrorist reprisal without our having to defend against it. It would not eliminate the possibility, but it would decrease the chances. People who are heard, respected, and treated fairly are not as likely to want to kill you. Does this mean we would have no military, engage in no reprisal, exercise no defense? No. We should exercise our defense while seeking reprisal on those who attacked us. But only them, and only such defense as we really need. If one man is the problem, deal with that one man.
Some say we’re not attacking Islam, just the misuse of Islam. While I think we should be wary of projecting on to others the evil we won’t admit in ourselves, I also think we should admit truths even when it embarrasses others and brings tension to our relations. To not see the relation between the founding stories of Mohammed, or the deep tradition of honoring the warrior mullah, or the pious certainty of the murdering suicide bomber, is to ignore this difficult and dangerous aspect of Muslim identity and practice. We are infidels to many of them, kufr, dust.
And so they could be also to us. We had little remorse over the one hundred thousand killed in the Gulf War. We care little for the hapless killed in our bombing campaigns. Perhaps the message is: “if you dare to attack us, we will kill you and your people.” Perhaps leaders like bin Laden will think twice before taunting such a ferocious giant as America, for we will turn “them” into dust. But if that is the message we send, it is one we could receive. If we would flippantly kill, we would be killed. Bin Laden didn’t say kill American soldiers and politicians,’ he said, “kill Americans.” If we take that to mean he and his have no respect for human life, we’d be right. But if we also have no respect for human life, we’d be a wrong as he. We can project our enormous might all around the planet. We are far and away the strongest military power on earth. But is it right to use it?
Should we take a rifle to a hornet’s nest? Would we bomb the most primitive with the most advanced, all at a distance, and think it has no consequence? If we unleash our smart bombs and they unleash their scattered retaliations, if we send fire and they send disease, if we pump ourselves up with sanctimonious patriotism and fail to see why others would also do so, if we add to the anguish and hate in the world and bring about a battle of Armegeddon, what would we have done? Is it noble or Christian to create hell for them and us? Would a religious hell somehow be good?
I say a pox on all their houses. The Iraqi people and the American people have this in common: our governments are out of our control. While they don’t even pretend to honesty and fairness, we do, pretend that is. Our bi-partisan Congress stands in unity with our president like a bunch of stuffed puppets, embarking on a hideous evil, an enormous mistake, a global tragedy. They pretend to represent the will of the people. Instead, they represent only the worst in us, the most fearful and least thoughtful, shallow, blinded, arrogant, lost. We start the 21st century with the worst momentums of the 20th.
A pox also on the three great monotheistic religions of the world. It is in the name of God that we prepare the way for hell. The same formula as didn’t work for thousands of years is again being foisted on the hapless. The self-serving passages in the Jewish scriptures, that claim God favors one group, and allows or even instructs the exploitation or annihilation of another reared its ugly head when conservative rabbis quote old scripture claiming the God-given right to land for settlements, or when Ultra-orthodox Rabbi Shach declared war on secular Jews at home for not following those self-serving passages. A pox on Christians, who lack a voice of kindness, healing and forgiveness, as their Jesus instructed, but instead allow fear and retribution to re-ignite needless wars. A pox especially on Muslims who appear to bless (or at least allow) their fanatics to rule them and ruin relations with their neighbors through murderous jihads and vehement presumptiveness.
This is not something new. It is the same old sad, silly, scary story. What we are facing is the shadow side of religion, theirs and ours. We are called, not to a military response alone, but a religious one. All religions teach the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Few follow it. Instead of the universal benefits of mutual win/win creative cooperation, religions, governments, and people practice and so inherit the shadow of the Golden Rule: “As you treat others, so shall you be treated.” Religions can be the tool of the devil. Unspeakable cruelties haunt the past and future. Religions hate. They imagine heaven for themselves and hell for their competitors, but help make hell for us all in the process. Their tools range from box knives to weapons of mass destruction, such as Saddam Hussein may have, to the multi-thousands of which we do have.
Robert Ingersol asked, “has religion civilized humanity, or has humanity civilized religion?” In our own western history we like to think our Judeo/Christian heritage has ushered in peace, prosperity, freedom and human rights. The case can be made towards that, citing the unusual Bible verse, or noting the interplay between religion and social progress. But the case could also be made against religion, showing how religion kept people obedient and superstitious. The Enlightenment, humanism, and a secular democracy freed people from religion’s constraints. We do not just have freedom of religion in this country, but freedom from it.
How does ostensibly being a Christian society play into this call to war? Didn’t Jesus preach and practice turning the other cheek? Did I get the story wrong? Wasn’t he the one on the cross? How is it that Christianity preaches and praises compassion and forgiveness, yet repeatedly ends up acting like Pilate and the Roman soldiers? Are we really so eager to get one man – Hussein – that we would kill thousands of his soldiers and people? There’s nothing to unite feuding factions like attacking one of them. Do we really want to taunt the entire Muslim world? If we were to get one man, what would we then do about the millions of others? We don’t have to go there or create this. We’ve been there before when all we had was horses and swords.
You’d think we would have matured and advanced. We’re thinking with thoughts a thousand years out of date. The three major religions caught up in all this are the three that use the Old Testament as the foundation of their scriptures. Islam, Christianity and Judaism all base their scriptures in stories of us and them, the chosen and the damned. We see how well an eye for an eye worked then and we see how well it’s working now. The trade of repression and retaliation for terrorism in the so-called holy land is an old bind – blinding. Will it go on forever? Will we adopt that model of being blinded by our own self-righteousness and inured to the plight of others? Will we bring ancient mistakes and 20th century habits into the 21st century and magnify them with our new powers and vulnerabilities?
We’re told we need to get back to our religious values. We’re told our government can’t and shouldn’t handle the welfare needs of its people and that “faith-based” initiatives will tend to food, housing, medical care and education. Some say we are a Christian nation and should institute a theocratic state of Biblical laws, milder but much the same as the Taliban enforced in Afghanistan. Looking at the horror and collective suicide inherent in our apocalyptic myths, at history and the looming future, I wonder how wise this is. With Ingersol, I wonder if religion is saving humanity or ruining it, and whether humanity can civilize religion.
The opposite of the Taliban is not Christianity, it is secular humanism. Where they impose their mean judgments on others and assume godly authority, secular humanists believe in “live and let live.” Our country, founded in principles of the Enlightenment, freed of religious subservience, dared to let people be themselves, and overcame religious rule and rulers. Fundamentalist totalitarian approaches fear and resent this approach. They would impose what they think of as God’s will in ways God or Creation never has. Secular humanism has come only part way in its brief few hundred year chance. If Americans will remember and live up to our own civic religion, allowing many religions and none, but preventing any one religion from dominating and ruling, we can continue to evolve a free and capable humanity.
But if militant Muslims, caught in ages-old battles with militant Jews and ostensibly kind but quickly militant Christians, continue to taunt the typical fears and hatreds of “us and them” in all our peoples, we will take this good Earth away from the paradise it could yet be for all people, and burn it into a hell. How ironic: religious hell.
All people understand the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Is this what we would have done unto us? Would we kill by the thousands the hapless people caught in harm’s way? Then so could and would we be killed. Would we insult and injure on a colossal scale? So will we one day be treated. Would we waste our resources and honor pursuing one bad guy so we won’t notice our own bad guy? Would our prisons bulge but our colleges dwindle? Would our people lack medical care while we create injury and suffering for others? Would we shriek that others have meager weapons while brandishing and launching our own massive ones? Would we kill their hapless soldiers and civilians yet assume it isn’t fair for others to do that to ours?
Like reverse alchemists, we’re changing our gold into lead, or worse, plutonium. Already, we poison their land with our depleted uranium shells, yet we claim they’re the ones with hideous weapons. We bomb their country at will, yet claim they are the threat. All too rare indeed are the peacemakers these days. The Quakers and Adventists, the Sufi’s and the Yesh Gaul, the secular humanists and the war protestors – these embody the kinder, gentler compassionate and creative forces that exemplify American ideals of freedom and justice for all. Only a few seem to still hold hope for a world of respect, beauty and abundance. Or maybe this is the will of the people who have been duped by our leaders and media into forsaking our ideals for the forces of fear and hate. We have forgotten our prophets and instead opted for profits, no matter how evil.
I do not agree. I am not United We Stand. I do not agree with taunting World War III. I do not agree with ignoring a falling economy or with toying with altering our global weather patterns or with starting a war to distract us at election time from our utterly corrupt current government. I do not agree with bringing hell to paradise. I warn you and implore you to live up to our higher and nobler selves. Lost in all this fright and confusion is any vision we ever had of a peaceable kingdom, free, healthy, abundant for all. We have everything we need for a sustainable wonderful planet occupied by a creative and responsible humanity. We are being led astray from all that by the pied pipers of Armeggedon. Be a patriot of the deeper and higher hope that America represents and help sway the mad rush to hell towards the plausible possibility of paradise.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass, Oregon
© October 6, 2002