How have we moved and grown in our reflection on 9/11? My family walked through the 9/11 site a couple of summers ago, the great testament of this experience to Lower Manhattan’s story. Tourists streamed through, office workers streamed by, and the economy of 9/11 is strong. I remember being in Manhattan the Christmas after 9/11. “Fight Terrorism: Go Shopping” was the message. It seems it worked.
And I continue to teach, using 9/11 as a reference point. It is the formative memory in childhood for many young students. It is the end of the 20th century in my framing of time, the event that closed a century of progress and violence. It is the beginning of a new Myth in America, and new consciousness, a new place in the geopolitics.
That place is increasingly difficult to pin down. In the face of Islamist Insurgence in Iraq and Syria, a movement crushing ethnic and religious minorities and trading lives for Youtube hits, President Obama and other Western leaders seem to waffle. Is it indecision? Or is it a mature cautiousness that comes from less mature mistakes? Or is it a conscientiousness to the complex situation?
Or is it fear?
I am reposting my 10 year anniversary reflection of 9/11, partly because it was so offensively simplistic. I felt that the reasons for going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan were bad, and the reasons for doing right by these cultures in finishing things well were good. I still feel that. I also still feel that we sold our cultural souls for a myth of personal and economic security. I still feel that political decisions dishonour the war-dead.
But I am not able to be so certain about what to do today in the Middle East. Part of me puts my finger to the War-button or Political Pressure-button when I hear the stories of Yazidi and Christian persecution, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the children lost to Boko Haram, the disproportionate bombing of Palestinian Muslims and Christians by Israel, and of Russia returning to 19th century ways of taking over the world.
But is that courage, or another kind of fear?
As the decade after 9/11 closes I am struck not by the strength of America in the face of great adversity, but weakness: economic chaos, political stalemates, global paranoia, leaderless disarray, military discord and the frenetic clutching of a culture gasping for breath. Canada, meanwhile, languishes in the warm bath of the comfortable, occasionally bracing itself in case the sleeping giant that is the American economy that Canadians are tethered to decides to take a dive off the Brooklyn bridge. Again.
C.S. Lewis’ rootedness in times of war provides a stark contrast to the American response to 9/11. An Ulster Protestant, he felt little of that anti-Catholic hostility in that generation that created—for me, decades later—my first glimpse of terrorism that was the IRA. Lewis fought and was severely injured in WWI, and his voice rang out words of encouragement during the bombing of London in WWII. Yet, he was not absolutely defined by them, and spoke remarkably little of war in his millions of printed words. Rather than scrambling in desperation in times of tension, Lewis simply picked up his pen and wrote.
He does, however, use his experience facing the German leagues at a couple of points in his work that he produced during WWII. Most notably was in his BBC lectures that became the book, Mere Christianity (some of the records of which were lost in the rubble of the German blitzkrieg). Chief among his arguments for the existence of God is the Moral Argument. Thomas Aquinas argued something similar before him: we see among humans an “ought”—a moral law at place among all people of all times. While the individual ethics have changed from time to time, there is always an “ought.” Lewis argues that it suggests there is a moral principle in play, since the only “ought” in the universe applies to human in culture.
Lewis gives a couple of examples, but the one he highlights is striking:
“Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle” Mere Christianity, Book I, Chapter 1.
In the context of the Nazis raping Europe and exterminating the unwanted, Lewis asks us to imagine what kind of culture would hold up as honourable what is really cowardice—and not just any cowardice, but selfish treachery against a fellow soldier and one’s homeland. Lewis believes that although individual humans will disagree on moral laws or choose to break them, no culture would breed a generation that values cowardice over bravery.
Yet, that is precisely the post-9/11 generation. We are the culture that honours running away in battle over standing and fighting.
Bravery in the face of great tribulation was the story of Manhattan in the hours and days after the towers fell. We saw images of volunteers sorting through rubble, of mothers looking for their daughters, of firemen fighting an unwinnable battle. I drove through New York that Fall. The state was filled with American flags, the stars and stripes that steadied the hand of the broken proud in the face of evil falling from the sky. Even to me, a Canadian that winces every time the sleeping giant rolls over in bed, I was filled with awe at the strength of Americans.
Now, though, a decade later, that’s not what I see. A few months ago, Canadian soldiers were pulled out of active military duty in Afghanistan because Canadians lost heart. It wasn’t because we won the war—or even lost it—but because there was no longer the political will back home. Afghanistan remains in chaos, the lives of its people permanently disrupted by a decade-long war of retribution against one who was hiding in its hills, and Canada decides it has had enough. Too many of our sons and daughters have died for … well, for what?
And the United States have now taken over the Canadian role in the war it started two weeks after bin Ladin’s men struck at the American heart of politics, security and economy. But their surge of troops into Afghanistan comes at the cost of military withdrawal from Iraq. Because of political pressure from an unhappy American population, Barack Obama commanded his soldiers to run away from the battle—there are better, less costly wars to fight elsewhere. While Iraq was in the news daily for seven years, now we hardly hear a thing about it. But at least American kids aren’t dying there anymore; the Iraqi kids can take care of themselves.
The land of the free and the brave has become neither. Their people have enslaved themselves to the myth of security and, consequently, have run from battle.
It isn’t that I supported the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Iraq was obviously a corrupt war from the get-go. And though I was tempted to believe that the collapse of the Taliban was a worthy reason for the action in Afghanistan, it was a coalition of forces attacking a sovereign country to hunt down a threat that either wasn’t there, or that was more clever that the coalition the dozens of countries that joined the U.S.A. in solidarity. No, I believe the wars were morally wrong.
But fleeing from them, I believe, is a greater transgression of morality. It is worse because we have made a mess there, playing with people’s lives, and did not deliver on the promises that were the bargain against international outcry.
Fleeing from war, though, shows that we are a morally bankrupt culture in the very essence of what it means to be humans. What kind of soldier is it that chooses—with the backing of its country—to leave behind orphaned children and burnt villages and druglords in action and insurgents on the prowl, simply because he hasn’t the heart to continue? This is the choice this generation has made, not the soldiers, and this is the demonstration of who we really are.
During his wartime novels in Britain, Lewis warned that the culture that honours cowardice over courage will fail:
“We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, God permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame.” CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters, Letter 29.
The one speaking is the senior demon Screwtape, and he is angry that these calamities create courage. But we shouldn’t read the war or earthquake—or market crisis, or housing crash, or drop in literacy, or dirth of jobs, or crippling debt, or failure in leadership—as a supernatural fist crushing people from heaven. No, these things are the natural products of a generation who no longer has the moral backbone to make courageous decisions.
And by all accounts, the recent nightmares in the sleeping giant we call America have not awakened its courage.
Instead, we mark the passing of 9/11’s decade as a collection of nations less prepared than ever to create an environment of freedom. We have chosen, when we became victims, to victimize others. And with our judgment fierce upon the world, we have failed to look at our own hearts. In this, we dishonour those that died in 9/11.
By all accounts, it seems to me, the terrorists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.