13 years later, we’re still fighting the war against terrorism, with no real end in sight. Today, September 11, we remember once again the horror, sorrow and losses of that terrible day. Yesterday, September 10, another U.S. President vowed once again to eradicate the terrorists. Who actually believes that this will be the last time we’ll hear a U.S. president take that vow?
13 years and one day ago, on September 10, 2001, most of us had never heard of Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. We had vague ideas about bad things happening far, far away at the hands of terrorists who immolated themselves while blowing up markets, restaurants and buses thousands of miles away in places most of us would never occupy. Too bad, we might say as we turned to the morning comics, but it could never happen here.
13 years ago, on September 11, 2001, it did happen here. Even now, those images of planes flying into the twin towers are almost impossible to see. On the 4th floor of Main we watched as smoke rose from the Pentagon. I remember standing in the middle of Social Hall that morning as students, faculty and staff streamed in and crowded around the television — only 13 years ago, we did not have the ubiquitous smartphones, tablets and pervasive wifi access to the internet. We had one television in Social Hall and the entire Trinity community crowded in to watch. Rumors of bombings all over Washington shook the crowd. “What will we do? Where will we go? How will we be safe?” students were asking. I did not have a clue. The Trinity community managed through that moment with as much grace and common sense as we could muster, and by the end of the day everyone on campus made it home safely. That was not true for about a dozen members of our extended Trinity family, relatives and friends who perished at the World Trade Center or Pentagon or on the planes. We remember them especially today.
Over the course of the last 13 years, we’ve come to know the cast of characters all too well, the leaders of terrorist organizations with murderous intentions and deranged goals. We’ve heard presidents and politicians proclaim Shock and Awe, Mission Accomplished, Bring ’em to Justice, etc. etc. etc. We’ve watched the flag-draped caskets of thousands of military service members arrive at Dover. A war to end madness may be madness, itself.
I wish I could feel confident about President Obama’s promise last night to “degrade and destroy” the terrorists in Syria. I wish we could stop hearing about “degrade and destroy” and all of the other words of war that, in the end, only serve to inflame the terrorists even more. Unlike conventional war, fought like some kind of sporting contests, where two sides go at it until one side gives up and surrenders or runs away, the war against terrorism is not against a clearly defined opponent in a nation-state, and what constitutes “winning” is an elusive notion. Terrorists are individuals who act much like viruses, and rather than eradicating the virus hostile actions can actually cause the disease to spread. Terrorists are everywhere, even here in the United States. We sometimes forget that one of the most appalling acts of terrorism occurred in Oklahoma City, committed by an American veteran, Timothy McVeigh.
On this September 11, perhaps the best thing we can do to honor those who died that day is to pray for peace, and then to use our advocacy to insist that our political leadership do more than promise to keep dropping bombs, which may be necessary but seems almost like a hopeless gesture in the face of evil. Our leaders cannot keep waging war without end. We must insist that they find a way to more lasting peace.