Sunday, September 12, 2010

9/11 nine years after

Maybe the most telling, insightful observance of the impact and power of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, their enduring resonance and the lingering social unease they engendered took place a long way from the United States.

On Saturday in Johannesburg, a South African court issued an order barring Muslim businessman Mohammed Vawda from burning a copy of the holy Bible in a public square — in a sad, tit-for-tat would-be response to Florida pastor Terry Jones self-frustrated threat to burn a copy of the Quran, in what was billed as “International Burn-a-Quran Day.”

It’s a sad commentary on the events of nine years ago on Saturday, and the loss of 2,977 human beings in the multiple attacks on Shanksville, Pa., the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York City that what’s come to define this anniversary has as much to do with religious intolerance as with the tragedy an earlier example of that intolerance produced that September norm.

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You know the back story. Admitting that “it is a radical thing to do,” Pastor Jones, of the Dove World Outreach Center of Gainesville, Fla., got it in his head more than a week ago to exact a cultural revenge on those of the Islamic faith by burning copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy text, on Sept. 11.

After a religious and political outcry that girdled the globe (one that eventually elicited reactions from Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan), Jones announced Thursday that after "praying on it," he'd opted to cancel his protest, claiming that he’d reached some deal with the leader of a planned Islamic center near the lower Manhattan site of the Sept. 11 attacks — a deal to move the center and mosque from its planned location in an old Burlington Coat Factory space two blocks from Ground Zero.



But Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the proposed center, said he made no such a deal and has never talked to Jones.

It appeared to start off as some malign fundamentalist prank bubbling up from the conservative Florida swamp. It was hard to take seriously at first, given the reflexive animosities of the current political climate, and the likelihood of those animosities getting worse by Election Day. In the beginning there was just too much important going on to devote much media oxygen to an earnest but deeply backward and unenlightened jackleg preacher of a church with a congregation big enough to fill a oversize garage with room left over.

As it turned out, while we could not stop for stupid, stupid happily accommodated us, in the process telling the world — and particularly the Islamic world — just how little America has changed since Sept. 11, 2001.



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It took President Obama to put things in a perspective worthy of the sacrifice of the thousands who died that day nine years back. It took the president to call the question on what we as a nation stand for, and to clarify the depths of retribution we can’t descend to if we want to call ourselves Americans.



"We will not sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," the president said at the Pentagon, where 184 people died on 9/11.

"As Americans we are not — and never will be — at war with Islam," Obama said. "It was not a religion that attacked us that September day. It was al-Qaida, a sorry band of men which perverts religion."

"The highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most," he said. "To stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country, and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are."

"We champion the rights of every American, including the right to worship as one chooses -- as service members and civilians from many faiths do just steps from here, at the very spot where the terrorists struck this building," he said.

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The president never spoke directly about the Park 51 center, or the cheap attempt at moral equivalency — building a mosque = burning a holy book— attempted by Jones and supported by the extremist right. Frankly, he didn’t have to. The rhetorical associations were obvious, and entirely necessary.

The president’s statements finally called on Americans to be Americans, to stand foursquare behind the ideals of religious liberty and tolerance that define this nation now, the way they did on Sept. 10, 2001. The way they still do today.

The agony of Sept. 11 will never go away. We will never forget. But it’s a disservice to those who died that day for Americans to hunker down in the spider hole of hatred, to embrace a home-grown version of the religious intolerance that made 9/11 so tragically memorable in the first place.

We’re bigger than that. We’re better than that. Our values are sometimes, even often, proven through pain and sacrifice. But they’re our values just the same. On this 10th anniversary, again next year when the even-numbered tribute will be more painful. Every year. We stick to those values, we live and die with them. We owe the memories of 2,977 stolen lives — Christians, Jews, Muslims and others — nothing less.

Image credits: Terry Jones: Associated Press. New York skyline: Getty Images.

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