As we remember the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, I am reminded of my 9/11 story. The Sunday following the attacks we had a guest preacher at the small church we were attending. She was a seminarian and a pastor’s wife, and I wondered “Wow, what a tough position to be put in. I wonder what she will say.” Well, she told the story of a conversation she had had that week with a fellow seminarian from Nigeria. In that conversation he said to her, “Now you in the United States have joined the rest of the world. You have now experienced the insecurity and vulnerability that we in Africa feel all the time.” Truer words could not have been spoken by that Nigerian brother, and it’s a message I’ve taken with me every since.
For a while we in the United States were humbled by the 9/11 attacks. We realized we were vulnerable, and we came together in amazing ways to support and honor one another. Not only did thousands volunteer to help in the clean up, but also hundreds of thousands contributed money to help the families, the victims and the rescuers. Every public event I attended in that first year had some ceremony to remember the 9/11 victims and their families, and also took time to honor police and firefighters for their dedicated service. We acted like people who knew that our strength was not in some false bravado, but in our connection and community with each other.
But somehow that sense of humility was turned into a war cry for revenge and retribution. 9/11 became the reason for discriminating against people of Middle Eastern descent and those who looked like them. People were stopped and harassed and detained simply because of their dress and appearance. Laws were passed that allowed the government to tap anyone’s phone at any time simply for being suspicious, and to violate all sorts of civil liberties. Then we entered into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bent on revenge and a determination to “get bin Laden.” While the war in Afghanistan made some sense in that the Taliban were supporters of al-Quada, Iraq was a sham from the start. We now know that there was an elaborate attempt to mislead the Congress and the American people about “weapons of mass destruction” and the threat that Saddam posed to our country. We know that before the tanks got rolling and the bombs dropped, the US government was negotiating with Halliburton and other major corporations to divvy up the expected oil revenues. President Bush alienated many of our allies, such as France, Russia and Germany, who refused to join us in our invasion. We have treated the POWs from that war as inhumanely as any thing that is done by our so-called “enemies.” In many ways we have become the very thing we say we oppose. Five years and 4000 dead and thousands more maimed and wounded later, we are still in Iraq, and the president and John McCain talk about achieving “victory.” Victory over what and for what? A Lie?
As I listened to the two political conventions these past couple weeks, I was struck by the fact that we are not only being presented two distinctly different candidates, but we are also being presented with two different views of the United States’ place in the world. McCain talks about “victory in Iraq” and being a Commander in Chief. He plays heavily on his 5 years in a North Vietnam prison during (I might add) another immoral, illegal war. He thumps his chest at Russia’s invasion of Georgia and invokes the memory of Ronald Reagan and the Cold War. His followers wave signs that say “Country first” and “America first”, as they chant “USA, USA” like they are at an Olympic event. In St. Paul the Republicans put forth a pre-9/11 worldview that says we choose to try and rule the world and dictate to the world, rather than join the world.
Obama presents a much different picture. (Now, I will admit that some of this picture is not one that Obama plays up much, if at all. It is the picture that is in my mind. So if you want to blame someone, blame me.) The future I see that Obama paints is a picture where the United States has joined the world, where US leaders actually talk to leaders of countries like Iran and Russia. It’s a world of coalitions rather than cowboy-style going it alone. It’s a world where the leader of the U.S. actually looks like people in the 2/3 worlds, and actually has roots in that world thru his father from Kenya and his childhood in Indonesia. It is a world where people are respected rather than run over in an attempt to expand Western corporate and political interest. In fact it is a world that the U.S. is a full participant, sharing the concerns, the vulnerabilities and the suffering. It is not a world that we in the U.S. like to think about, but in my view it is the world we live in.
These visions of the world are embodied in the messages and images of the two candidates, McCain and Obama, while at the same time being visions that transcend either man. These visions speak deeply of how we see ourselves as a people. No doubt the pre-9/11 vision is comforting and assuring to some, while the post-9/11 vision is uncharted territory and thus frightening. Yet, I believe that if we as a nation don’t choose the multi-national, multi-cultural, one-nation-among-many future, we will be dragged there soon enough through a painful collapse of our society and way of life.
When my daughters were in middle school, I told them they had to learn Spanish because by the time they were adults 25-30% of the US population would use Spanish as their first language. I wish I had had the foresight to tell them to learn Chinese, Swahili and Arabic as well. The world my girls inhabit today as young adults is a much more diverse world than I could have imagined. It is a world where they must know how to communicate and cooperate across racial, cultural, national, religious, and ideological lines. It is a world that doesn’t abide an “America first” way of thinking.
One of my students put it clearly and succinctly. She wrote:
“I feel we are now at a newfound precipice looking into the future. We can choose to be proactive and decide what we want to become as a people–a global community within and without our borders–or we can continue to react and develop our social policies ad hoc. “
Like this young woman, I believe we are at precipice; we can either move backward to a time that exists only in our minds, or move forward to embrace the fact that we are part of a global community and need to do our part to help it become a healthy community. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict, failure, disappointment and the like. But in my mind it is better than denying what 9/11 clearly showed us: that we must embrace being part of the world as it is, or suffer the consequences of living in a Pollyanna past.