It would be easier to panic about this news if we had not already known that Al Qaeda would love to hit us any time they can get another strike organized. They made that crystal clear on September 11, 2001, and they still hate us enough to die for the pleasure of killing us.
Living with the daily threat of terror is a nerve-wracking experience. Some days it seems unbearable, especially for those who live in places like Washington and New York. Such daily insecurity is not a situation that Americans have often had to face in our history. Protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors north and south, we have most often walked our streets without fear of foreign enemies.
And yet such fears have not been altogether absent in our history. In the colonial period and on the frontiers, the settlers often faced the realistic threat of Indian attack. The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and various skirmishes in between all were contexts in which Americans had to become accustomed to the threat of attack on their own soil. People had to learn to protect themselves and prepare for violence while trying to go about their daily business as normally as possible.
The Cold War also involved moments in which tensions were so great that war appeared imminent. In that case we feared a global nuclear war, a war that threatened to annihilate hundreds of millions of people in a matter of hours or days.
I was reminded of how profoundly fearful some of those days were, when I stumbled across a speech I gave as a college senior in 1984. In that speech, I talked about how desperately afraid our generation was, or at least I was, of dying in a nuclear war. I compared this apocalyptic fear that nuclear Armageddon might bring down history's curtain to the apocalyptic hope held by many in the early church that Jesus would soon return. Could it be, I asked, that we were living at the end of history and that our generation would not live out its days?
The challenge that the nuclear arms race presented to faith was the possibility that we human beings would misuse our growing scientific and technological prowess and destroy life on this planet It is one thing to await an end that is under God's control and in his plan; it is quite another to fear that we might do ourselves in through own stupidity and evil.
Twenty years later, the fears of that particular moment seem to be from another universe. Today we face not international communism but Islamist terrorism; not a bipolar standoff but a war on terror against shadowy enemies; not one climactic nuclear exchange but instead devastating terrorist attacks in any major city anywhere.
Times change. Enemies change. Fears change. If I have learned anything in these 20 years it is that human existence is always infinitely precarious. The graduating classes of, just to pick a few dates at random, 1777, 1862, 1917, 1943, and 1968 each faced enemies, threats, and fears.
Somehow, despite all enemies, threats, and fears, they made it. The world survived. America survived. And most of them survived. In every historical moment, including this one, Christian faith proposes that the best possible answer to every generation's fears is trust in a God who loves the world, who is sovereign over this planet even when the evidence of that sovereignty is hard to discern, who has spoken to humanity, who has shown us how life is to be lived, and who promises to welcome us home when our time on earth is done.
This is good news any time. It is especially good news when we must live with the daily threat of terror.