A few days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the headline of an article in The Economist Newspaper read, “The Day the World Changed.” The subtitle asked the question: “After this unspeakable crime, will anything ever be the same?”
I hear that question asked time and again in many forms, all speaking to the issue of restoring life in America to the way it was. We all have this inclination to believe that “normal” is when we are free of problems, when we are happy and sated. We tend to think that things are normal when we are in perfect equilibrium with everything around us, without stress or fear or urgent need – not unlike a perfectly balanced aquarium.
The past two decades of the “good life” in America were an aberration from the norm. From the perspective of history, the norm for humanity is not peace and prosperity, but wars and rumors of them, challenges, strife and struggles to survive. Civilizations come and go. Nations rise and fall. Few things last.
This tendency to not deal with matters that don’t impinge on us personally or directly has been standard operating procedure for most of us. Our concern with tragedy has been proportionate to its distance from us. As a people, we have been in denial for a very long time. It has blinded us to a foreseeable reality that “something evil this way cometh.”
We should have known. The first attack on the World Trade Center came in 1993, killing six Americans and wounding more than 1,000. In 1996, terrorists bombed the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Air Force personnel and wounding more than 500. In 1998, they blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 301 people, including 12 Americans, and wounding 5,000 others. Last year, the same terrorist network killed 17 American sailors by blowing a hole in the side of the USS Cole in port in Yemen.
Our national response to all of these atrocities was limited and token. We lobbed a few missiles and missed our targets. We arrested a few of the front-line fanatics, but we never got anywhere near those who organized and financed the attacks.
The initial shock of these brutal slaughters of Americans quickly melted away and we were back to business as usual, that is to say, back to “normal.” The basic apparatus of terrorism was never in danger. All our enemies needed to do before they struck again was to wait until we dropped our defenses and lapsed back into our customary lethargy.
We have made a commitment to a war against terrorism. Our enemy is far-flung, organized in small cells and cabals, and supported in secret by nations who wage war on us by proxy. The enemy wears no uniform. He walks among us, invisible in the crowd. Will we, in the words of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, have the will “To strive, to seek, to find, and not yield”?
It is a joy to see so many Americans calling upon God again and to see politicians publicly soliciting His blessings. It has been a long time since that happened. How much grander is our vision when there is no wall of separation between God and country!
We are of such nature that it sometimes requires a massive threat to remind us of our mortality and by what a slender thread we hang. It happens in an earthquake, when the very earth upon which we stand sways and shakes like it is the end of time. It happens when the plane in which we are flying suddenly drops 10,000 feet in an air pocket. We are paralyzed by gut-wrenching fear. We sense that death is seconds away.
During such a moment, a window opens on the truth and, for the first time, we see clearly. We see that we have built the foundations of our lives upon sand and that all will be swept away as though it never were. We understand we have traveled life’s journey without meaning or purpose. We cry out, “Oh, Jesus! Oh, God, save me!” We promise to change. We swear to do better.
Then, suddenly the plane levels off and the danger is over. The window closes. Safe on the ground, the promises are quickly forgotten. The revelations fade away.
I hope that in the months and years to come, we will not forget our moment of truth and return to the way we were. I pray we will not allow the lessons of this tragedy to be gradually undermined and chipped away by those among us who secretly consider our national renewal of faith and unity a setback to their agenda.