Some years ago I wrote a paper, entitled “I used to know all the answers. Now, I know some of the questions.” The question that introduces this reflection is one that I never expected to ask. But it must be asked if we are to learn anything from the events of September 11th.
The automatic response is, “Hit back, hard and quick.” This is the instinct that life has taught me. It is also the instinct that life has taught me to question. Please understand, I do not say “reject” this response. I say “question” this response.
I have learned from experience that there are times when action is demanded. But there should be few times when unthinking action is appropriate.
What are the other questions that come up for me as I reflect on the subject question, “How should we respond to terrorism?”
One is, “What was the point?” “Why did more than19 potential terrorists find each other in the first place? And why did they prepare elaborately, over what appears to have been a period of years, to hijack at least four civilian airliners, overpower the crew and passengers — and then take the lives of thousands of other persons as well as their own lives without explanation?” It seems to me that until we understand the answers to these questions, we are in danger of retaliating wildly, like a fighter with a paper bag pulled over his head.
There are those who would say, “What does it matter? Eliminate the cause. Chop out the root. The tree will wither and die.” But who can be sure? Many roots, thought long dead, have sprung back to life. Recent world history confirms this reality.
Most importantly, by responding instinctively we are at risk of becoming that which we hate — oppressive, thoughtless, careless, self-righteous, vicious.
Another question is simply, “Who is responsible?” The question is larger than it seems. Within it is the question, “Who was not responsible?” For, there is a great hostility growing in our country toward Middle-Eastern and Islamic peoples, as well as toward others wrongly perceived as “fitting the mold”. We risk, in a rush to judgment, injuring innocents who deserve our protection. In other countries, as well as this, we must take care — like any good surgeon — to do as little harm as possible while removing the offending growth.
A last question worth asking is, “What do we stand for?” For Americans have always stood for liberty, justice, freedom from oppression. Will we still stand for those values as the “War on Evil” is fought?
Whether one calls it a “War on Evil”, a “holy war” or Jihad, war is never holy. War may be necessary, rarely. But it can never be holy. For to be holy is to reflect God. And there is nothing warlike about my God. The Quran describes God (“Allah”) as “Merciful and Compassionate”. The Gospel refers to God as “Love”. It is men who create war, not God. Let us pray for the gift and the grace to recognize our limitations.