The question is not what happened. The question is what shall we do about what happened?
When planes smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, Americans were, as a people, frightened and hysterical and in shock, made mute by fear and anger. We are now at war with ghosts, with people we do not know who hide in caves, they tell us, and lash out in stealth. Worst of all, terrorist organizations claim that in some blasphemous way they are doing the will of God. Clearly, something has to happen or we will all be lost. But what?
There is, perhaps, no spiritual tumult more threatening to human equilibrium than not knowing what to do when something must clearly be done. Frustration is a spiritual event.
Parents suffer it when they see a child sinking into the false euphoria of a world of drink and drugs. Shall they cajole their child or constrain them, whatever degree of disaffection it costs? Husbands and wives suffer it when they watch the love of their lives go sour. Should they leave the situation or punish the person to the point of destruction for betrayal? Nations suffer it when their interests are threatened, when their territory is attacked, when despite their power they find themselves impotent. Will they strike back in kind--or in conscious concern for others who are equally innocent and equally at the mercy of powers they do not know and cannot see? It is a terrible moment in the life of an individual. It is an even worse situation in the life of a people.
The frustration of being beaten from behind taxes both the psyche and the soul, the national self-image and the national sense of security. We have struggled with holy wrath and unholy rage, between grief and the gripping urge to get even, between seeing that order reigns in a world seriously askew and getting our power back--right now.
It is one thing to sin out of a sense of powerlessness; it is another thing to sin because you know that no one has the power to stop you from doing it. It is one thing to do justice; it is entirely another to wreak vengeance on those who never sinned against you to begin with. Even the biblical dictum of 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'--the notion that the aggrieved can exact this much and no more--counsels against the unrestrained anger that grows into irrational assault.
But it is happening everywhere: Sikhs mistaken for Muslims and shot on the spot. American Muslims driven from airliners with tickets in their hands. Harsh and brutal threats of unlimited reprisal in the streets. It was a schizophrenic reaction: people in one part of town loved one another more; people in other parts of town hated one another more.
Never have the values of justice and respect for life upon which the United States is built been so sorely tried as this. We must choose now: We can become what we hate--we can strike out blindly--or we can become more than ever what we see ourselves to be: a Christian nation that functions in the name of Jesus in a world where loving your enemies is clearly a very dangerous thing to do but never a more necessary one.
Osama Ben Laden is not the problem. He is simply a fanatic hiding behind a warped version of the will of God. The problem is that he is getting a hearing from those many Muslims who are not fanatics, from those who have no stomach for violence, from those who seek the blessing of God for themselves and deserve it, from the children of this generation who will be the leaders of the next. We must not only take out bin Laden's banks and training camps, we must take out his student support. We must listen to those who listen to him. "A riot," Martin Luther King wrote once, "is simply the language of the unheard."
Maybe the truer military action, rather than to terrorize an already terrorized people, would be to bomb the bombed out Afghanistan we left behind after our puppet wars with the Soviet Union--but this time to bomb them with bread and butter, money and water pipes, schools and fruit trees. Maybe the better weapon would be to call together representatives of the whole Muslim world and ask them to explain to us why students are rioting against us in the streets and what we could do to change their minds about these things. Maybe the Christian strategy would be to take the terrorists' support away by loving and helping the children to whom they are national heroes.
The question, of course, is whether or not such a moderate response--bombing people with love--would not also be a pitiably, laughingly weak one? And the answer may be an ancient one: Once upon a time, the story tells, a foreign warlord rampaged through the mountains, killing as he went. So fierce was his reputation, that terrified people evacuated their villages in droves before he even got there. The warlord loved the sense of power that came with such fear.
One day, riding into a deserted village, he smirked to his lieutenant, "And all the people have run away, I'm sure." "Well, sir, " his aide said, "All but one, an old monastic who goes on saying his prayers." The warlord was furious. "Bring him to me at once," he screamed. When they dragged the old monastic to the command post, the warlord scowled into his face menacingly. "Do you not know who I am," he shouted. "I am he who can run you through with a sword and never bat an eye." And the old monastic looked straight back at him and said, "And do you not know who I am? I am he who can let you run me through with a sword without ever batting an eye."
"In violence," Mary McCarthy wrote, "we forget who we are." We also forget what we are: human beings, Christians, people with children of our own to whom we are leaving this violent world.
The problem with this situation is that right in the midst of it we must remember that there are some virtues more important than power to maintain. When we are deciding what to do in the face of attack, we dare not forget what they are.