Articles > Interreligious dialogue > 2006 > A Glance at the Sky of the Wounded Empire
The journal > Year 2 N.4 September 2006 > A Glance at the Sky of the Wounded Empire

A Glance at the Sky of the Wounded Empire

"God bless America" /3. A Franciscan priest is the first name on the long list of those who died on 11 September. This is no accident. A few minutes after the collapse of the Twin Towers the Catholic hierarchies, simple priests and the leaders of the various Christian elementsin the country had already committed themselves to a decisive and deep action, thereby leading a whole nation to ask itself radical questions about existence, about evil, and about God.

Marco Bardazzi | 01 September 2006

The death certificate number 1 signed by the legal doctor of the United States of America on 11 September 2001 was that of a Catholic priest. Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan, was the chaplain of the firemen of New York and one of the first to arrive at the World Trade Centre after it had been hit by the hijacked aeroplanes. He was also one of the very first to die and destiny had it that the list of the macabre identification of bodies began specifically with his name. It is significant that in the official reports that document the effects of the gravest terrorist attack in history, the symbol-event of the beginning of the twenty-first century, a priest headed the list of almost three thousand victims. Right from the first moments of the attack, it was clear to America that the historic challenge to be faced was also that of having to deal with the religious connotations that the offensive of Al Qaeda brought with it. The last words spoken on the hijacked planes of which we have a trace were 'Allahu akbhar!'. These were shouted by the terrorists three times during the last seven seconds recorded by the black box of flight United 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania. Right from the first moments after the tragedy, and during the five years that have followed it, the United States of America has had to deal with the danger of reacting in an indiscriminate way against Islam, on the domestic front as well. At the same time, the enormity of what had happened led an entire frenetic nation to ask itself radical questions about existence, about evil, and about God.
The dimensions and the capillary character of the response to 11 September of the Christian communities of every denomination and their leaders is a phenomenon that has not yet been very much studied or understood in all its aspects. The effects have been decisive and have been heard everywhere: from the squares to university campuses and from churches to the White House. It was for example specifically the action and the advice of some of the exponents of the Christian world (religious and scholars) that led President George W. Bush to take a step backwards after defining (on 16 September) the war against terrorism as a 'crusade', a word that immediately inflamed the Arab world. The Catholic hierarchies, simple priests and the leaders of the various Christian elements of the country set in motion their reaction to the attack within a few minutes after the collapse of the Twin Towers. If Father Mychal went to die with the firemen, other priests and Protestant pastors, rabbis and imams immediately set to work to receive the laments and the prayers of those who were coming out of the smoking ruins of Ground Zero. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, wearing a green surgeon's uniform, administered the last rites at the St. Vincent Catholic Hospital of Manhattan, a few yards away from the World Trade Center. The then Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was presiding over a meeting of the American Bishops' Conference when flight American 77 hit the Pentagon. Immediately, with five other Cardinals and twenty-one Bishops, he organised a Holy Mass in front of two thousand five hundred students who were in tears at the Catholic University of Washington. 'We must pray that our nation', he said during those first hours, 'resists the temptation to look for vengeance or makes the blame fall on some ethnic group'. Remembering the dismay that followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, McCarrick called for unity 'amongst ourselves and with the whole of the people of God in the world'.
Faced with an event that from the outset was tinged with an attempt to find religious bases to justify what had happened, the shared and immediate impetus of the spiritual leaders of the great religions of America was to try to hold each other's hands. The most visible and powerful signal arrived on 14 September, three days after the attack, when Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim representatives gathered together in the National Cathedral in Washington. To hear them and to find inspiration in the first row were George W. Bush, the former Presidents Clinton, Bush the Elder and Carter, the whole of the American government, all the judges of the Supreme Court, and the leaders of Congress. Reverend Billy Graham, one of the most authoritative figures of the Christian world in the United States of America, referred to 'those majestic towers built on solid foundations which were examples of the prosperity of America' and placed before the powerful of the nation and ordinary people the choice to be made at that time: 'either we implode or disintegrate as a people and a nation, from an emotional or spiritual point of view, or we choose to become stronger through all the hard work of rebuilding on solid foundations. I believe that we have already begun to rebuild and the foundations are our trust in God'. By his side Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, of the Islamic Society of North America, in his turn invoked God: 'help us in our difficulty, keep us united as a people of different faiths, colours and ethnic groups'. A few hours after the ceremony at the National Cathedral, Bush appeared at Ground Zero amidst the firemen and workers who were searching amongst the rubble. He spoke to them through a megaphone, standing on a pile of detritus amidst what remained of the Twin Towers: it is a common view that this was the most 'noble' moments of his presidency, before the Bush administration became involved in the controversial war in Iraq.

Separating Islam from Terrorism
Taken by surprise by the attack of 11 September, the White House did not confine itself in those first days to looking for advice from military men and intelligence experts. It also opened the doors to scholars and exponents of the great religions in order to try to understand more deeply the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism, which had to be dealt with. Rather than leaving to the CIA alone the task of explaining to him the characteristics of Al Qaeda and the personality of Osama bin Laden, Bush received external indications which turned out to be decisive in helping the administration to decide how to react. Years later it may appear taken for granted that the war against terrorism was not a 'war against Islam'. But it is proved that it was, in reality, a belief that emerged in the Oval Office thanks to the work of some of the many figures belonging to the academic and religious worlds from whom Bush asked advice. One of these figures was David Forte, a professor of law at the Cleveland State University, an expert on Islamic law who was very much listened to at the White House (today he is also a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family). Forte immediately and strongly supported the thesis that Osama bin Laden and the Taleban were a perversion of Islam and were involved in a campaign against Islam itself. The professor from Cleveland explained how 11 September and the justifications for it given by bin Laden were only a modern version of the actions of a violent faction of Islam, the Kharigites, who were seen as a complete aberration by the Islamic creed from the very beginnings of its history. Forte, listened to by Bush, argued that one was faced with extremists who were strongly influenced by such modern radials as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and warned the White House: we are at war with a ideology, not with a religion; bin Laden has a great deal in common with Stalin, Hitler and Mao, not with the Islamic tradition. In a wounded America the insistence by the leaders of the government on the fact that the terrorists 'hijacked and kidnapped a religion, as they did with aeroplanes' helped in a significant way to avoid (with certain rare exceptions) American Muslims from being the objects of indiscriminate acts of vengeance, which could, indeed, have taken place. Stimulated by events to offer first of all instruments of education at a confused historical moment, the American Catholic Church during these years has played a key role in defining the terms of the question. During the weeks immediately after 11 September, the Bishops' Conference of America created a specific commission which was entrusted with reflecting on the challenged raised by the attack in the light of Catholic doctrine. This work group, chaired by Professor Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard University), in November 2001 presented its conclusions, which were then adopted by the Bishops in their pastoral message Living with Faith and Hope after September 11. Amongst the central points was the warning of Pope John Paul II that this was not only an attack against the United States of America one was also dealing with 'crimes against humanity'.
'Those who were responsible for the attacks', the document emphasises, 'may have been motivated by opposition to specific policies of the United States, in particular in the Middle East, but their basic agenda seems to be a profound antagonism towards the culture and the institutions of the West'. The Bush administration was exhorted to use caution in the employment of military force. The military operations in Afghanistan were adjudged to be substantially 'justified' but there was a call for respect for civilians and an action that would isolate the terrorists from the rest of the population, in addition to a long-term commitment to the reconstruction of the country. A military attack on Iraq, on the other hand, was held to be not justified. The Glendon commission declared that 'any simplistic connection between Islam and terrorism should be rejected. The most effective way to respond to the terrorist claim to a religious justification for violence or to those who argue that religion for the most part is a source of conflict is offered by the rich religious tradition of the world and the witness of very many people of faith who have been a powerful force for non-violent human liberation throughout the world. 11 September', the document went on, 'constitutes a challenge for the Church and for the government to go to the root of things in their understanding of, and approach to, Islam'.
During the five years that have followed the attacks in New York and Washington, obviously forms of extremism of a religious matrix have not been absent. Preachers such as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson could not resist the temptation of inveighing against Islam as such and of reading the contemporary historical moment in the key of who is the 'true' God. Adored by the mass media for their capacity to generate polemic, and also a certain embarrassment on an international scale, the Falwells and Robertsons have been exceptions and their following is much less than their capacity to 'make news' would suggest. The real phenomenon that has grown up in the United States of America after 11 September has been the boom of spirituality and the search for religious belonging which has undoubtedly had, amongst its other causal factors, also the requests for meaning which were touched off in many hearts by the terrorist attack. A certain puzzlement may be provoked by such mega-churches as the Texan Lakewood Church, which, in order to be open every Sunday to the ten to fifteen thousand people who come to listen to the evangelical preacher Joel Osteen, bought a sports stadium from the basket team of the Houston Rockets. Curiosity may also be aroused by publishing phenomena such as The Purpose Driven Life, a book by the pastor Rick Warren which remained for months at the top of the bestseller lists, in the wake of the success of a preacher who manages a network of forty thousand churches and has an open door to the White House and the most influential offices of the Senate.

Religious Thought
What is certain is that the America of the new millennium is being redesigned by the activity and the thought (which are strongly influenced by 11 September) of its galaxy of Christian denominations. Billy Graham and his son Franklin have an important effect on the lives of millions of Americans. Pastors such as the Pentecostalist T.D. Jakes, lead 'empires of faith' which control large slices of the recording and film market. The very strong Hispanic immigration (which is in large measure of a Catholic impress) is giving the Latinos and their religious leaders an increasing voice in American political life. At the White House there is one of the Presidents who more than any of his predecessors in recent history has openly declared that God is the source and the inspiration of his action. It is no accident that George W. Bush in recent years has entrusted the task of writing his speeches to Michael Gerson, a former journalist who has shared his faith and Christian roots ever since the time when the future President was Governor of Texas. Gerson's speeches very often demonstrate that their sources are the conversations held in the White House with personalities such as Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism and who Bush refers to as the person 'who helps me to express religious issues'.
History will judge the choices made by the Bush administration in the field of foreign policy and its action in relations to questions connected with the Middle East, the Gulf, and Central Asia. What is certain is that beginning with 11 September the religious factor has had its influence (which has not been of a secondary nature) in strengthening the belief of the Republicans in power that the concepts of democracy and freedom are the solution to the repeated crises in the Middle East. For many years since the time of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, after the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, the Democrats have abandoned their former trust in the ideal of democracy being exported in the world. It has been the Republicans, ever since the time of Ronald Reagan, who have made this their war cry and with George Bush, in the wake of the terrorist attack, this political policy has taken on the dimensions (and also the controversial aspects) that we know today.

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