Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 09/10/21

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Eve of destruction. Tomorrow we mark the 20th anniversary of the event some say began the story of the 21st century. Unfortunately, our nation’s recent departure from Afghanistan, following a two-decade occupation, is feeling like the opposite of victory – with a Trafalgar Group poll for the conservative Convention of States Action reporting that a majority of Americans fear the Biden Administration‘s chaotic handling of the withdrawal will lead to another domestic terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11.

Meanwhile, Americans have fears that, amid all the turmoil, Afghans evacuees entering our country in a climate of turmoil haven’t been properly vetted while those who truly supported our troops remain trapped and in deadly peril. At the same time, our people have a natural positive inclination to want to aid innocent refugees fleeing an evil tyranny. Representative of that desire, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network (MFNN) is working with churches, synagogues and mosques, as are faith groups from across the country, to gather food, supplies and other assistance for Afghan refugees. In a spirit of peace and unity, they will be dropping these supplies off at local mosques as part of a 9/11 Day of Service.

So how did we get here? Two decades after the attacks, questions remain about the events leading up to tragedy. Those questions prompted to Ray McGinnis, a Canadian religious scholar whose previous book is about understanding the Psalms, to investigate the veracity of the U.S. government’s official 9/11 Commission Report from the perspective of families of those murdered on 9/11. The result is his new book Unanswered Questions: What the September 11th Families Asked and What the 9/11 Commission Ignored.

JWK: You’re a religious scholar who holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Toronto and a Diploma in Christian Education from the Centre for Christian Studies. You’ve done ministry work with the United Church of Canada and have also worked with an inclusive spiritual renewal community known as the Naramata Centre in British Columbia. Your previous booked is titled Writing the Sacred: A Psalm-inspired Path to Appreciating and Writing Sacred Poetry. How do you go from a background like that to authoring an exposé about 9/11?

Ray McGinnis: What I did previously was helping people in congregations or helping people at the national level to have leadership development…and to reflect on the world around them, including some social justice issues and pastoral issues and to think about what was going on in the present moment wherever they were so they could be the hands and feet of Christ.

Then I was also for years leading writing workshops, helping people in grief support groups journal about their journey of grief and loss, helping people in healthcare settings use a journal as a way to recover from illness and injury, helping people explore poetry in a natural setting (by going) on nature trails and to stop and write poems about what metaphors and similes were being suggested to them out in nature – and also inviting people to write new psalms. The psalmists did what they did many, many centuries ago. What would you say now in the 21st century? So, a lot of what I was inviting people to do was to reflect on what they were aware of, to honor their own personal story and to trust that narrative writing is important.

I was aware that there were other books that had been published about the events of September 11th but…most of those books were books that were hardscrabble history or political science current events books drilling down into facts and discussions about a lot of minutiae. What I’ve written is a book that honors the voices of the families – a range of families that do not all agree about what they think about the attacks or what they think about the 9/11 Commission…Throughout my book, I’ve layered quotes from different people’s testimonies before the 9/11 Commission, from different articles and interviews and symposiums so that people hear over and over again these voices of first responders (and) family members so that they begin to care about these people. That’s one way in which what I’ve done is different than some other people might do…Everybody who was participating in congregational and parish life on September 11th, 2001 remembers where they were. I spoke to a woman here in Vancouver just the other day who remembers exactly where she was on the morning of September 11th. She was a minister and she went to church that day and remembers exactly what that day was like for her and the conversation she had with people in the congregation and the whole tone of the day.

I think that throughout this time people in congregations were wanting to make meaning of what is going on in this world – in God’s world. Anthrax attacks, a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq, a war on terror, a war in Libya, refugee crises, all the way up to withdrawal from Afghanistan – while it’s true people were getting our weekly lectionary readings and hearing homilies and sermons and reflecting and doing Bible study, throughout all of that time everybody who is a person of faith was also aware of what was going on with this larger story.

So, it seemed important to find some way to write a book to help people reflect twenty years later on what it’s been like living in a post-9/11 world and to do that through the lens of the story of the families. I chose to write about the families, unlike some who (understandably) tried to simply heal, recover from that grief and stay out of the spotlight, went to Washington, D.C., knocked on the doors of all the members of the Senate and Congress and forced the Administration to try and have an investigation.

It was a difficult time but I think (of) the story of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. That widow wants justice and wants the judge to follow up and give her justice…We discuss in Bible study what St. Paul meant about the powers and principalities. In Bible study we have a chance to slow down and reflect on things we might not notice if we just heard Scripture read during worship and never delved into anything further. Just reading the obituaries of people who died on September 11th or hearing the families read the names of loved ones on the anniversaries of the attacks isn’t really enough…We have an obligation as people of faith to theologically reflect on the families’ stories and this less well-known effort of September 11th families to have an investigation…and not just to get caught up in the 24/7 media cycle of headlines and emotionally-charged information. We can quiet our minds and find the quiet center and then maybe pick up a book like mine and then reflect on a deeper level about what’s been going on.

JWK: What are the primary “unanswered questions” that you cover in the book?

RM: One of them is why weren’t NORAD jets able to intercept the hijacked planes if they were airborne within eight minutes of notification? Since the late fifties protocols have been in place for all flights to get approval for all flights from air traffic control towers for an approved flight and approved cruising altitude. If a plane flew off course more than two miles it posed a risk to other planes in domestic air space.

Back in 1956, the families found that there had been a Grand Canyon midair collision that resulted in 128 casualties and other similar midair plane crashes in clouds over New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. The traveling public in the late fifties needed to be reassured that when they took a flight that that flight would not crash into another plane up in the air. Since putting this protocols in place, the US Air Force and NORAD have intercepted thousands of flights from the late fifties until September 10th, 2001. They did this with military precision. They always were getting 100 or 100 or whatever. They were always batting 1000 to use a baseball term. They were guarding the nation’s skies. The families wondered how could the military be zero for four on September 11th that morning?

JWK: Where does that lead us?

RM: It leads us to either to everybody’s falling down on their job and failing to do what they know to do. I mean there are pilots are in the Air Force who were interviewed saying they do not know why the planes were not intercepted. They said we’re routinely practicing what should have happened six times a month. This is just one Air Force base. It’s not as though the US Air Force pilots were unfamiliar with what they’re being trained to do on a monthly basis. So, I think that it’s an unanswered question. It’s either massive incompetence or somebody gave a stand-down order for some reason…The families ask the questions not to be accusatory of the government.

JWK: It seems like the suggestion is that either there was some kind of massive foul-up – or the US government is somehow complicit in what happened?

RM: And that could be. Sometimes governments want to go to war. I don’t know. The families are simply asking the question and the question was ignored entirely by the 9/11 Commission.

JWK: So, you’ve talked to these families, right?

RM: I talked to a few families and otherwise watched all of the testimonies of the families before the 9/11 Commission (and) read lots of articles of their quotes. Some families don’t feel like (talking). They’ve had this horrible loss. Someone in their family has died. They don’t feel like they owe it for the rest of their lives to pick up the phone and talk to people that they don’t know at all about their very personal private loss. I understand that. I’ve talked to numbers of people but not all them.

JWK: Overall, what was the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion about what happened? How would you summarize it?

RM: The 9/11 Commission reported that the attacks on September 11th happened due to a failure of imagination.

JWK: You say yourself that there is no real consensus among the families about the report. I guess some more or less believe the report and others have strong questions. Is that correct?

RM: Yes. I would say of a dozen people on the Family Steering Committee at least half would be satisfied with maybe the bare bones of the government’s report…Maybe three or four would say they’re completely satisfied with the report. Others would say that they think there’s a big cover-up regarding Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. There are others – four, five or six of them – who felt there needs to be a new investigation because the report never was never conducted in a way that you would want to an investigation properly.

JWK: I think a lot of people could buy that the US government might – for political reasons – sort of downplay or cover-up Saudi or Pakistani involvement in the attack but any suggestion that the US knew the attack was going to happen and intentionally didn’t stop it is really something else.

RM: It is something else. If we look at the Scriptures we see – especially in the Hebrew Scriptures – long discussions of many of the kings of Israel and Judah and a lot of them didn’t come off very well…The Family Steering Committee that I wrote the book about did not accuse the Bush Administration of complicity. They asked some difficult questions. Only nine percent were really ever addressed. The rest are just left there without any acknowledgment – which then raised more disturbing questions for some families…One of the questions, since we have this withdrawal of Afghanistan, was to ask (why President Bush signed) a directive to go to war against Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda on the 9th of September which is two days before the attacks?

JWK: That’s quite an allegation. Is there any substantiation of that?

RM: I’ll read you the exact question the families asked the 9/11 Commission to ask President Bush. “Please discuss the National Security Presidential Directive presented for…approval on September 9th 2001 which outlined plans for attacking Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan.”

JWK: I guess it’s reasonable that they might have a contingency plan for something like that – though it would be quite coincidental if it was signed two days before 9/11.

RM: It was signed a couple of days before…It raises some questions for some families.

JWK: Are all the questions about the Bush Administration? I mean there’s also been criticism about President Clinton’s failure to takeout bin Laden when he apparently had the opportunity.

RM: There were questions asked of President Clinton, Al Gore and Madeleine Albright and failure to takeout bin Laden in the late 1990s (and) the seemingly Keystone Cops behavior of the CIA in terms of nearly getting him and not getting him and all kinds of things but I think that the families primary questions are to do with questions for the Bush Administration…The families lobbied Washington, got an investigation, monitored it on a daily basis for twenty months and the Commission ended in 2004. There questions were primarily to people in the Bush Administration. Sandy Berger would be the person with the most questions (of) the prior administration.

JWK: I remember him. Isn’t he the guy who got busted for stealing some 9/11-related by stuffing them in his pants?

RM: Yeah. The families are concerned about that…There may be more reports in the press than I can find but of the twelve (members of the Family Steering Committee) five of them publicly said how they voted in 2000. Three of the five voted for the Bush-Cheney ticket. So, this is not a group of twelve people who are partisan Democrats.

JWK: Any thoughts on how President Obama handled things – or is that out of the scope of what the book deals with?

RM: Yeah. The book mostly is dealing with events between 2001 and 2005…I did write that members of families met with President Obama…Beverly Eckert whose husband Sean Rooney died asked him to close down Guantanamo. There have been some articles in the news suggesting that some families may have also asked him for a new investigation which is possible but I can’t corroborate that. I do know that families asked (Sen.) Patrick Leahy to have a new investigation into 9/11. He said he was gonna do that and then President Obama said that he would veto any effort to do that.

JWK: And, of course, even though President Obama wanted to get out of Afghanistan, he ended up ordering a surge in troops.

RM: Yeah. A lot of the details once you’re getting into the Obama and Trump administrations are outside the scope of my book.

JWK: Anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?

RM: I think what’s important is to remember that these families are examples of what the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission – Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton – in their memoir Without Precedent said that these families efforts to…lobby Congress, to learn about politics and to force an investigation is one of the best examples of grassroots democracy in many, many decades. I think this story, whether you’re a Republican, Independent or a Democrat, whether you’re satisfied with the 9/11 Commission’s report or whether you have questions, is a story that’s worth being familiar with and a story that is helpful for anyone who wants to reflect on what it means to (live) in a post-9/11 world.

JWK: Finally, based on your experience writing this book, what changes would you like to see? Do you have any recommendations about how we can see that this doesn’t happen again?

RM: I think I would recommend (that) when things are happening all around us and people are making accusations (we should realize) those accusations may be well founded or they may not be. I think, in the case of President Bush, when he was pressed to say how (he knew) that bin Laden was responsible (for 9/11) he said (“There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt…We know he’s guilty.”) I think that whatever the truth of the story is that the President’s answer wasn’t…

JWK: Well, we do have bin Laden on tape talking about it. I was working for Fox News at the time and bin Laden is on tape admitting his involvement.

RM: Which tape is that?

JWK: I remember it clearly. I don’t have it at my fingertips right now but they captured a videotape where bin Laden and his crew are talking about the planning of 9/11. I don’t think there’s much doubt that bin Laden was behind it. I’ll have to seek out that tape

RM: Well, there was a tape…where he said he didn’t do it.  And then there was a tape that was found by the military in Afghanistan in late November which was then aired on TV in December. He was very gaunt and then he was quite chubby and quite a lot of people questioned whether that tape was legitimate.

JWK: On the tape I recall – and which I will look up – he wasn’t claiming responsibility. He was just caught on tape talking about the planning with his guys. It seemed pretty clear Al-Qaeda did it. You can have the final word.

RM: I think that we’re all living a post-9/11 world. It’s been twenty years now and the families’ stories are like the story of the Persistent Widow in the Gospel of Luke. That is a story of persistence. I think that it’s important for us to walk a mile in their shoes. Whatever the truth of those events and wherever people come down – and the families don’t all come down in the same place – it’s important still to listen to the story and become familiar with it.

End Note: Ray McGinnis is certainly right that there are legitimate questions that need to be asked about led up to 9/11. We may not always agree on the answers – or even the questions – but a free and civil society needs to be able to question authority and debate everything. We all need to respect each other even in our disagreements. I hope the families get the direct answers they seek. Maybe his book will help.

That said, I looked for the bin Laden video Ray alluded to above. I could not find a video (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist) but I did find a CNN.com post dated September 17, 2001 in which Al-Qaeda leader is quoted in a statement issued to the Arabic satellite channel as saying Al Jazeera “The U.S. government has consistently blamed me for being behind every occasion its enemies attack it. I would like to assure the world that I did not plan the recent attacks, which seems to have been planned by people for personal reasons…I have been living in the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan and following its leaders’ rules. The current leader does not allow me to exercise such operations.”

I don’t know about you – but I’m not inclined to take his word for it. BTW, if you’re interested in the bin Laden admission video I remember from my time at Fox News, here it is. Note the 0:42 mark where, according to the translation, he says “We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. … (inaudible) Due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.” Faked? I wrote that it was “a public relations daisy cutter” at the time. Despite his Al Jazeera denial, I still think so.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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