The news has been filled lately with 9/11 remembrances. Many news stories have updated us on the families of victims and the dreadful events of the day. My wife Beth and I are attending two different events Sunday afternoon and evening. Many communities, colleges, and universities are holding remembrance events.
Beth was in Manhattan on business that morning. With no Tuesday classes, I was home watching a VHS tape of the movie “Finding Forrester,” so I didn’t know what was happening until Beth’s secretary called and asked if I’d heard from Beth. By that time, both towers had fallen. Unbeknownst to me, Beth had actually seen the second tower fall as she and her colleague stayed at their hotel several blocks away. Of course, phone service was dodgy but we finally got through to each other. Beth and her colleague left the city on Saturday, when the LaGuardia flight that had been optimistically scheduled was, in fact, cancelled, and the two of them rented a car to drive out of the city and across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, finally to our home in Ohio. It was a bad week, but so much worse for many, many people.
The evening of 9/11 I did something well-intentioned, which was to take daughter Emily to the animal shelter to look at cats. We had already discussed the possibility of adopting a second cat, and I thought that merely looking at cats would be pleasant for her as we both worried about Beth’s situation. Of course, we found the perfect cat, a little 8-year-old part-Siamese, black and white kitty named Domino. I should’ve waited, but in my distress I decided we could adopt Domino. Unfortunately, our cat Odd Ball—one of the most patient and placid cats on the planet—reacted very negatively to the interloper, and I was up most of the night dealing with the situation. It wouldn’t have been a restful night anyway. I can imagine that very strict British woman on the show “It’s Me or the Dog” sharply criticizing me for the situation. Happily, Domino settled in, Odd Ball settled down, and we loved Domino for four years until he suffered a disease and had to be put to sleep. Emily wrote a contest essay (which though excellent didn’t win) for “Cat Fancy” magazine about our 9-11 friend.
Beth and were going to lead a community project this year, including interviews of people about how 9-11 changed their lives. The project never developed amid the many other, good projects happening around our community, but the question is still pertinent: how did 9-11 change your life? I think for Beth and me, our normal efforts to try to promote inclusiveness and understanding increased. I was privileged to write a short study book on world religions which also promoted understanding and mutuality. My editors hoped the book would be well-timed following 9/11, and the book went on to sell over 20,000 copies.
I always wonder what happened to a student enrolled in my European history class that semester. He had gone to Manhattan to help with efforts. When he returned, he was quite shaken up and asked if I’d give him some leeway with his assignments. Of course I told him to take care of himself. But then he stopped attending class altogether and made no further contact. I hope he found help for his difficult experience.
Not surprisingly, both Time and Newsweek and other magazines feature cover stories this week on 9/11. I picked up a USA Today issue called “Remembering 9/11: A Tribute to Heroes.” I was interested in the article therein, “Good News in America,” which tries to balance our current gloomy mood with positive things: a record number of foreign students attended American colleges in 2010; employment is up in Silicon Valley and the tech sector; there are more jobs in clean energy than ever; farm exports are up; we have a growing number of national parks; there are more women entrepreneurs; and although he’s controversial, Obama is of course our first African American president, significant amid our legacy of slavery and racism.
Looking for a balanced analysis of our national policies of the past ten years, I found an article in the journal Foreign Affairs (Sept.-Oct. 2011). Melvyn P. Leffler of the University of Virginia reflects on “9/11 in Retrospect: George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy, Reconsidered.”
He concludes that “It seems clear now that many of [Pres. Bush and his advisers’] foreign policy initiatives, along with their tax cuts and unwillingness to call for domestic sacrifices, undercut the very goals they were designed to achieve” (p. 37). Their goal of U.S. primacy, analogous to the expansion of U.S. global policy after the Korean War, was hurt by other things. One was the flawed efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq which, in combination with America’s support of Israel, caused increased hostility toward the U.S. in the Muslim world, while the cost of both wars—now well over $1 trillion—also hurt American primacy in the world, added to the increase in domestic spending, and increase in U.S. debt held by other countries, as well as Bush-era tax cuts. Thus, both American position in the world as well as its economic strength have declined since 9/11. Unfortunately, too, the U.S. war on terror, including our two long wars, have possibly increased the number of jihadists (pp. 37-39).
However, the war on terror has had positive outcomes, too: it has possibly thwarted new attacks, gained successes in Libya (e.g., its abandonment of a nuclear program), kept ties strong with India, China and Russia, and, as Leffler puts it, “reformed and reinvigorated foreign aid, exerted global leadership in the fight against infection diseases, tried to keep the Doha Round of trade talks moving forward, and raised the provide of democracy promotion and political reform in ways that may have resonated deeply and contributed to the current ferment across the Middle East” (pp. 39-40).
Leffler helpfully goes on to show how the Bush Administration’s strategies were not at all something new and unprecedented but were rooted in strategies, presidential rhetoric, and bipartisan national policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine. Even our unilateral policies after 9/11 are rooted in Americans’ “instinct to act independently, and to lead the world while doing so,” going back to Washington’s farewell address” (p. 42). I recommend this article for anyone thinking with these issues.
Our current partisan atmosphere in the U.S. isn’t new, either, but it is still lamentable, especially in light of the commonality and mutual care following the 9/11 attacks. As I watched the NBC news this morning, Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked that our time of political goodwill changed into an extended time of political rancor. What I wish for is, unfortunately, not going to happen, because it’s not the nature of politics: a kind of soul-searching and bipartisan problem-solving among our elected leaders regarding the plusses and minuses of our recent foreign and economic policies.
For instance—-to go on a tangent for a moment—I supported recent efforts at health care reform, as well as the use of stimulus funds to help the faltering economy. (This is a debated point among economists and columnists, but writers in The Economist magazine have argued that these funds did save the country from potentially disastrous economic depression and, in fact, additional stimulus money might have hastened an economic recovery). But unfortunately the timing and the way the efforts were handled by the administration and Congress (while not unlike the way the Medicare prescription drug legislation was handled several years ago) created a “vacuum” of public discussion that has resulted in the posturing and lack of cooperation among national leaders who do share responsibility of addressing economic mistakes and advancing beneficial economic policies. I go on this tangent because one big issue right now, seemingly lost amid the rhetoric about cutting domestic spending, is the plight of injured and troubled veterans of our recent wars—as well as the circumstances of the poor and the struggling middle class, who continue to be stigmatized in political rhetoric about “entitlements.” But our economic challenges include not only domestic “cushions” but also foreign aid, major military expenditures for our long wars, and the current need for tax reform.
What we need is a very strong injection of a sense of shared responsibility into our political discussions and into our everyday thinking as citizens. 9/11 has, after all, become a powerful symbol for American resilience, mutual help, and hope for the future.
As I thought about these topics, I found a discussion of Thomas Friedman’s new book, That Used to Be Us: How American Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (by Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum). The authors argue that America’s turning point came not with 9/11 and its aftermath, but a decade earlier, when the Cold War ended. Friedman states that “[w]e shifted from [the] greatest generation that really operated on what we call in the book ‘sustainable values’ — saving and investing — and we handed power over to the baby boomer generation who really lived by ‘situational values’ — borrow and consume.” One wonders if this is one reason why we, as a country, did not mind so much when we did not have to make many domestic sacrifices at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were waged. He also notes that, with globalization, American-based companies are no longer contributing as much to the well-being of society. Friedman notes that “We are missing the voices of those CEOs in our discussions — national discussions on education and infrastructure — because if they can’t get the workers, the infrastructure, the opportunities that they need here, they can just go somewhere else… And that’s a huge problem.”
Friedman continues, “We’re having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election and it’s like they don’t even overlap in many ways. The incentives of politics today — money, cable television, gerrymandered districts — are so misaligned with the needs of the country that they become like a closed circle, operating on their own,” he says. “What we argue for is an independent, third party that actually can show that there is a huge middle in this country that demands different politics.”
Recently, I was the principal writer for a lesson series about “faithful citizenship.” In those lessons, we cited the noted author Robert Bellah who has commented that contemporary conservatism, with its strong free market component, and welfare liberalism both tend to focus upon individual rather than the common good; both outlooks stress that “[t]he purpose of government is to give individuals the means to pursue their private ends” and differ only “about the means by which to foster individual self-reliance, not about the ultimate value of fostering it.” Furthermore, we tend to lose sight of our commonality–as individuals, families, and workers–when we frame stories in terms of individualism. Researching the lessons I found a wonderful comment by columnist Ellen Goodman, who takes the current slogan of the Home Depot company, “You can do it. We can help,” and says that, in our current moment of overpaid CEOs, individualism, and misplaced stress on “personal responsibility,” we’ve lost the second half of that slogan, “We can help.” We Americans want to help each other, but somehow we often lose sight of that when we discuss broader economic and foreign policy issues.
If conservatives tend to emphasize personal responsibility and discipline, the liberal answer of providing government relief to the needy also misses a huge sense of what the ethicist Eric Mount calls “shared membership in a national community or a global community.” What Americans still need is a “story” of shared national and global membership wherein we do not frame our view of one another as “us and them,” but rather of “being in this together.”
Mount writes: “Learning to tell better stories about ourselves as Americans and as members of the global community will not occur if we cease to remember the stories that we tell around the tables of our familial and religious communities and of our various voluntary associations and fail to advocate the virtues embedded in these stories. Nor will the better stories emerge if we lack the willingness and ability to hear the stories of other…The virtues of faith as openness to the other, love as affirmation of the other and compassion toward the other, hope as the expectant patience to keep public discourse alike, and generous public-spiritedness as the manifestation of gratitude are essential to the process of table talk that sustains civil society. If our covenantal religious traditions are worth their salt, they will season civil discourse to make it more inclusive, more respectful of difference, more attentive to the well-being of the entire community, and more constitutive of shared identity that does not subsume all other identities.”
Can politics be loving and inclusive? It’s hard to imagine! Do we need a new, third party that can better articulate the needs of the political and economic “middle”? We’ll see how such an idea plays out historically. But for now, the legacy and heroism of 9/11—powerful in its tragedy, as well as its commonality among our families, religious communities, and organizations—can be a reminder to us that Americans’ first reaction to a crisis is to pull together and bolster one another. I’ve low expectations about writing letters to national leaders, but we can at least pray that some of our common spirit of mutual care can extend to the vision of our national leaders as well as to our personal political and economic opinions.
1. “Thomas Friedman on ‘How American Fell Behind,’ NPR Books, Sept. 6, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/09/06/140214150/thomas-friedman-on-how-america-fell-behind
2. “Faithful Citizen,” http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.html
3. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 262-266.
4. Ellen Goodman, “Bob the Un-Builder, The Washington Post Writers Group, January 11, 2007:
5. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.
6. Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 156.
7. We Christians aren’t always as careful as we should be in communicating Christ’s love and Christian kindness while also communicating our political opinions. I admit that I rage (and sometimes shamefully swear) in private while watching the evening news, although I try to be kind while discussing politics with others. Feeling angry and discouraged about politics is entirely normal; it’s a sign that we’re engaged citizens! But then we church people need to be careful that we don’t sound like certain angry, divisive political commentators when we talk politics, otherwise we might fail badly in sharing the Gospel of God’s love.