Forty days after the murders of September 11, I flew to New York City for a first-hand look at Ground Zero. I had a deep personal need to be there, to see and smell that shattered place on this blessed earth, but I also very much wanted to prepare myself, as a priest, to help other people interpret it.
I was picked up at the airport in New York by my friend Eddie Colton, a police sergeant whose First Precinct beat covered the World Trade Center. Eddie took me to hospitals and fire stations still filled with photographs of the missing and tearful messages and pleas for assistance in finding loved ones. He introduced me to police officers who had survived that morning and to some who had been injured in the rescue attempts. And finally he drove me to Ground Zero, handed me a helmet, and gave me permission to wander around in the ruins.
I saw the on-site morgue where the bodies of recovered victims were taken to be identified. I stood in the middle of Tower Two and watched the tedious and dangerous excavation efforts. I saw the body of a woman taken from the ruins with great reverence and prayer. I heard the cacophonous din of gigantic excavation machines. I smelled acrid layers of muck and burning steel and crushed lives. As night fell it seemed to me that this was a scene from the underworld, filled with steam and jutting metal skeletons and dark pockets of as-yet-unexamined earth.
The next morning I returned, in brilliant sunshine, and walked around again — this time through the Tower One site, and then, with three policemen, through the memorial area that had risen spontaneously. It was filled with photographs of the dead and missing, hand-written letters from their spouses and children, and thousands of other notes and messages from men and women and children grieving for the dead.
I went home feeling that I had seen primordial evil at work in the world.
Like nineteenth-century Americans first hearing of Fort Sumpter and the opening of the Civil War, like twentieth-century Americans first hearing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of our immersion in the Second World War, we twenty-first century Americans heard of the murders of September 11 and were forever changed. Those four airplane crashes mark a loss of innocence for us, a recognition that as a country we are no longer invulnerable within our borders from attacks by hostile forces.
We wanted to find out who was responsible. We wanted to forestall future incidents by capturing or killing the agents of murder. But Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda were not national actors; his hijackers were from various Arab countries; and the fact that many of the hijackers had lived and studied in Europe suggested further underground cells of agents awaiting orders for further devastation. Eventually our President and his administration chose wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as our response to attack, and for six years we have expended priceless lives and billions of dollars in attacking international terrorism and defending our national safety. Yet at best, after six years, we now seem bound to an endless cycle of war and fear.
It also seems to me that after six years we are increasingly tempted to characterize our enemies as satanic, demented, and incapable of rational discourse; that we are ever more tempted to reestablish savage violence as a virtue on behalf of the “forces of good” against the “axis of evil”; and that we are ever more tempted to employ torture as a tool in our battle against terrorism. In short it seems to me that we are tempted to return to the darkest of human ages, before we matured to a series of subtle moral distinctions and restraints that have evolved over more than sixteen centuries.
And it seems to me that now, as the United States is bogged down in a protracted war, with great loss of life and horrendous physical and emotional trauma on all sides, there is a pressing need to speak clearly about what the Christian tradition in its richness has to say about such a perplexing dilemma.
Armed human violence goes back before recorded history. The club and the spear were succeeded by the arrow and the gun, succeeded in their turn by poison gas and nuclear weapons; and certainly civilians have been terrorized by, and terrified of, marauding armies, outlaw gangs, and pirates for many thousands of years. It was the rise of governments and their attendant defenses against enemies that gave wars beginnings and ends, and gave rise to a world where human beings dream of peace, stability, and security on the largest scale.
Terrorism in the modern sense arose in the eighteenth century, with the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror — a widespread breakdown of civil order during which unrelenting murder for political gain was the rule. A century later, systematic terrorism appeared in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia and Armenia, among other places, under the theme “Propaganda of the Deed.” The anarchist impulse allowed almost any rationale to suffice for killing and destruction in public places and for the assassination of the political leaders of the day. The upturning of the old order seemed to be sufficient grounds for almost any kind of disruptive and bloody behavior.
While there were terrorist-like groups on both the left and right operating during both world wars, it was in the 1960s that urban terrorism became a widespread phenomenon. Groups like the FLN in Algeria, the Red Brigade in Italy, and the ETA in Spain began to interact with and learn from the IRA in Northern Ireland, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the PLO in Palestine, the Red Army in Japan, and the Shining Path in Peru. By the 1970s these groups began to take on an international frame of reference. Some governments, like Cuba and Libya, began to provide assistance to terrorist organizations, including training, money, and armaments. In the 1980s, new secular and religious terrorist groups emerged in Sri Lanka, Palestine, Lebanon, Chechnya, and Kurdistan, and for the first time such activity began to take the form of suicide attacks.
Terrorism, in the sense in which I use the term, is distinguishable from revolutionary warfare, guerrilla activity, organized crime, and civil disobedience. It is a form of public violent activity by the weaker against the stronger. It is a kind of political theater which requires an audience. It is directly used against non-combatants, in most cases to induce fear and a loss of confidence in the established leadership of a given society. Overreaction by the police and military is expected, and such misguided responses can be a way of gaining additional support for the cause. While most terrorist attacks are small in scale, their impact can be highly disproportionate to the resources expended; but it is instructive to remember that it is very expensive to sustain a terrorist operation, and often terrorist groups gain financial backing through crime and traceable donations.
Religious terrorism, as a subset of international terrorism, raises additional problems. There have been radical organizations that have appeared as advocates of terrorism within the umbrella of Christianity (KKK, IRA), Judaism (Meir Kehane), and Hinduism (India). But most of the recent attention has been focused on radical Islamic groups.
In the 1700s, Muhammad Ibn Wahhab went to war against polytheism and sought to establish a pure form of Islam. He advocated jihad or holy war against impiety and impure practice. He taught that a warrior who gives his life in a true jihad is a martyr who will be granted entry into paradise. Two centuries later, Saudi Arabia was created after the First World War from the ruins of the Otto-man Empire, and Wahhabism gradually became the dominant religious group there. In 1964, when Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz became ruler of Saudi Arabia, he gave the Wahhabis control of pilgrimages, the religious endowment, education, and the enforcement of justice. They proceeded to radicalize the mosques in Saudi Arabia, and later elsewhere, taking allies like Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
In the 1980s, a fundamentalist thinker named Abdullah Azzam restored the centrality of the idea of jihad, and from this caldron of fundamentalist thought and activity emerged Osama bin Laden. Born in Saudi Arabia, wealthy and formally educated, bin Laden was radicalized by the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but his real genius was in organizing and finding funding for Muslim fighters. In 1989 he created al Qaeda (“the base”). In 1992 he and his followers attacked their first American target, in Yemen. This was followed by more ambitious attacks in Somalia (1993), New York (the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993), and in Saudi Arabia (1995 and 1996). In 1998 he formally signed a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for the death of Jews and Christians. Then came September 11, 2001.
Two ancient precedents for suicide terrorism are the Sicarii, or Jewish assassins, of the first century after Christ, who attacked Roman imperial officials with knives, knowing that they would be caught, and the Shiites of the eleventh century who under Hussam-i-Sabbah rebelled against the Sunni Muslim establishment with suicide attacks. In the modern era the best-known suicide attacks were those of the more than 2,000 Japanese kamikaze pilots in WWII who killed themselves in battle, and the 10,000 Iranian children sent to their deaths across minefields by Shiite leaders during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1989. But now the tactic has spread across the world and across religious lines: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (pioneers in persuading young women to die), the PKK group in Kurdistan against Turkey, the Chechnians against the Russians.
By instinct, we think of suicide bombers as demented, desperate, almost sub-human. But most of them were raised middle-class, many had earned undergraduate degrees, some had earned graduate degrees. They were remarkably intelligent and loyal to their organization, and indeed those terrorists who are most fanatic, impulsive, or mentally unstable are usually rejected by their overseers, as suicide bombers need to be organized, calm, unassuming, able to fit into a crowd.
Suicide attacks can be an effective tactic in the short term because they are extremely difficult to prevent. But we have seen enough now to begin to wonder at the destruction they wreak on the organization and the culture or religion from which they come; the Sunni and Shiite suicide attacks against each other in Iraq, for example, undermine claims that such a tactic is a religious good, and the murder of women and children, of old people, and of religious pilgrims is manifestly inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of the Koran.
In the final analysis, suicide attacks, as horrible as the harm they inflict might be, are even more dangerous for the reaction they produce in the societies at which they are directed. It is a constant temptation in the face of unjust bloodshed and targeted death-dealing wreaked upon us to lash out in response, to take off the gloves, to play by new and tougher rules; we so easily become exactly like that which we hate. Which is how the government of the United States has turned to torture, a practice long ago proscribed in both international law and in Christian theological teaching.