Articles > Interreligious dialogue > 2006 > Those Concentric Circles that Spread Out from Ground Zero
The journal > Year 2 N.4 September 2006 > Those Concentric Circles that Spread Out from Ground Zero

Those Concentric Circles that Spread Out from Ground Zero

Something changed /7. In the stances of the most authoritative exponents of the Church, the proposal to engage in a courageous examination of conscience and the pointing out of new pathways. From full solidarity with America to the rejection of war and of the clash of civilisations, from the upholding of citizenship for religious identity to that of a new launching of the fight against injustices: the corpus of a teaching that is profoundly immersed in today.

Dino Boffo | 01 September 2006

The Twin Towers, 11 September 2001: never, on the Islamic side, had there ever been conceived a more brutal and disruptive affront to injure a world seen to be radically hostile. The objects chosen as a target could not leave any room for doubts about the intentions of the terrorists and indeed they ended up by attributing to the horrible massacre a value that was threateningly symbolic. In carrying their attack to the heart of New York, where the pulse of the life of a metropolis par excellence beats emblematically, the Islamic terrorists expressed in the most expressive way possible their disgust for what was representative of the intense and characteristic seething of modern life, which, indeed, is expressed above all else in North America. And that they did not intend to strike only the United States of America but aimed at the whole of the West, as the attacks that followed in successive stages in Europe, from Madrid to London, sought to demonstrate in a way that could not be doubted. The hypothesis that has recently emerged that these were isolated initiatives rather than episodes in a more organised strategy, far from attenuating their criminal character in reality strengthens their capillary desecrating character in relation to Western models, something decreed not by a single top level but by a widespread lattice of the very motivated faithful.
All at once it was as though the codes of self-understanding of the Western world, which was induced to see its own geographical location as involving risks and the Islamic presence within its own societies as threatening, had been shattered. The points of dialogue appeared to be broken or at the least they were more difficult to implement: the enormity of this terrorist event, which had been carried out in the name of an albeit deviant and aberrant religious idea, launched again the dark idea of an inevitable conflict. A figure of the long haul, and one who is rather minimalist in approach, Giulio Andreotti, observed: 'the world is going through the gravest crisis of its historyafter September 11 nothing will ever be the same again'. He was outlining a diagnosis, albeit of a summarising kind, and projecting forward the questions that emerged from that event. Pope John Paul II, for his part, took refuge from apoditical definitions. With a broken voice he spoke about 'a dark day in the history of humanity', and immediately gave a specific indication of his suffering: there had been 'a terrible affront to the dignity of man'. It appears all too logical that today, some five years later, attempts are being made to understand what directions have been taken by the pathway that was then so brusquely interrupted. And this can also be useful, to the extent, that is, that one can approach the phenomena involved with all the disenchantment and lucidity that are possible. For my part, I will offer only some observations as points of departure for reflection.

Have we Re-identified Ourselves as the West?
The attack of 11 September 2001 was first of all a slap in the face of our universalistic feelings and our cosmopolitan customs and habits. The acquisition of a world consciousness seemed to us such an important landing place that we willingly neglected our local derivations which, indeed, were seen as fragments of an identity that had to be recomposed at a higher, planetary, level. All at once, instead, someone struck us because we were Westerners. The immense mourning into which the United States of America fell ended up by posing questions to us all. We understood that what united us was something that was very deep in terms not only of modalities of habits and customs but also of our approach to life itself. What the Americans found to be so monstrous as to be inconceivable was such also for us. The close-up sequences of their experience, the astonished silence of their reactions, the bending down at the site of Ground Zero to pray in an absorbed way, and then their reaction as a nation that was also aware of the tragedy of its responsibilities, all of this, and other things as well, led us to recognise in their profile that of our own civilisation, which has its principle archetypes in Christian pietas. In our country a widespread feeling was registered, a spontaneous identification with the nation that had been struck. And there did not fail to be those who, taking this sad event as an opportunity, invited people to engage in an examination of conscience at a cultural level. The observations made by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the President of the Bishops' Conference of Italy, were memorable. After observing the right-duty to react against terrorism, he offered the following injunction: 'it is necessary to unmask and to go beyond first and foremost as an ethical and cultural level that pseudo-moralism which is present unfortunately also in our countries and even amongst Christians that tends to see the United States of America as the cause and the synthesis of the evils of the world, seeing in them the highest expression of a civilisation and a development that are said to be intrinsically and irremediably mendacious and wicked'. This was a statement in grand style against attitudes that are at times ingenuous and at others ideological, in fashion in certain social enclaves, and which have a direct root in contestation. But also against a certain intellectualistic snobbism which over the last ten decades has produced a climate full of opposition towards traditional friends in order to open up channels towards alternative cultures and countries. Naturally, in the context in which it was conceptually located this way of thinking did not pull any punches about the historically detectable defects in the West, including the United States of America. In the same way as it did not seem to incline towards apocalyptic readings very much in fashion at the time of the conflict underway. The Catholic Church, in the form of its most enlightened exponents, has never made easy concession to the theory of the so-called 'clash of civilisations'. If an appeal was made to the shared roots of the West, this was not to erect new stockades or dig new trenches but to find the culturally most realistic and thus most effective key to the new challenges that have dramatically appeared.
But specifically this position which was as clear as it was anti-conformist ended up by giving fame to the appeal of the Catholic Church and by characterising the Church for its peaceful insistence on Western identity as the fruitful path for the by now difficult dialogue with Islam. In practical terms, this was, on the one hand, an appeal to not allow ourselves to be captured by facile slogans we Europeans who on more than one occasion during the twentieth century had an opportunity to experience at a concrete level the solidarity of the United States of America. On the other hand, it was necessary to place the cultural elite face to face with their responsibilities so that they would not go beyond oppositions and allergies that do not have real justifications and at the same time pollute people's judgements, thereby nourishing a spirit of opposition.
It was striking at that time that faced with this transparent invitation to rediscover the reasons for a profound nearness between the United States of America disagreeing voices were not raised in public, not even in those circles in which anti-Americanism was most rooted. This was perhaps a sign that the arguments that were adopted stood up, but above all else that the moment was really compelling. However, it would be ingenuous to think that solely because of this event a mentality that was not in the least marginal was rectified d'amblé. We may say, however, that the event of the Twin Towers imparted a major shaking to the band of feelings that connect us historically to the West and in particular to that great country of the stars and stripes. More incisive arguments and a greater lucidity in judgements have, in fact, produced a broad disenchantment with lines of thinking that are perceived as being vague and characterised by prejudices. We have good reason to think that the intense activity that was then set in motion has not been interrupted despite the fact that with his decision to declare war on the Iraq of Saddam Hussein Bush certainly provided reasons for criticisms that are only in part new and which have been nourished by the traditional anti-American armoury.
In the meantime, however, the West was no longer alone from a geographical point of view and became more a membership that certainly exposed people to risks but which in fact fostered a more distinct and characteristic identification.

More Aware of What Cannot be Absent?
The horrible bloodbath of 11 September brought with it, among other things, the sign of an absurd indifference towards human life specifically understood as such. The idea of death that did not encounter any obstacles in the decision to blow away thousands of existences necessarily had to have an impact. There is an important element in our culture, when empirically analysed as well, that leads to seeing every human life as priceless and which, for this reason, has rights that cannot be compressed. One of the most effective interpreters of European culture, Johan Huizinga, has wrote that the ethical centrality of the person is the primary reference and the principle of identification of this identity. It was to a certain extent inevitable that when faced with a nihilistic conception of human life, embodied in Islamist terrorism, we had to ask ourselves about shared humanity but also about the specificity of cultural differences, And it was natural that we felt, as Westerners, the need to extract from a confused memory the soul of our civilisation, which in the ultimate analysis is a Christian soul. If only we could express it better so that it could be perceived and cradled by us and, where necessary, defended. But also to make it known about and if possible appreciated by our new in reality ancient interlocutors that the unfolding of history is placing beside us.
Nobody, obviously enough, wants to deny here the processes of secularisation that have been underway for a long time in the West, and which, from many points of view, are more radical today than in the past. Just as nobody can deny the specifically universalistic character of Christianity itself as a message of salvation addressed in a concrete way to all peoples, capable of embodying itself in the most diverse cultures. And, in addition, the tragic events of five years ago could not but emphasise again the question of the specific relationship between the modern West and Christianity. Precisely because awareness of this relationship also helps us to understand and to recognise in a better way the features of other civilisations which are different from ours but alive, we must avoid thinking that the roads of the future can only begin with a religious levelling. It is certainly the case that 11 September deepened the distinction between those who have a vision of religion as being distinct from politics and those who adopt an approach that seeks too close a relationship between these two levels of the human experience. However, it would be a tragic error to think that Islam needs a obligatory treatment of secularisation on the Western model. For example, it has usefully been emphasised that proposing to Islamic women a model of emancipation based on feminist battles that are typically Western, centred around going beyond marriage, contraception and abortion, produces the contrary effect to that desired because, amongst other things, it strengthens the image of a corrupt and morally disqualified West that infects the integrity of Islam with its customs and habits. The direct consequence of such a development is a more marked and hostile entrenchment on the part of Islamic communities.
An ethnic presence very much marked by its own creed, such as the Islamic presence of this kind, has in general raised the question of its Western equivalent. It may be an accident but after 11 September an increase was observed in religious practice in the United States of America, where it is already higher overall than is the case with European averages. It is difficult to say today how much remains of this cultural intensification. It is certainly the case, however, that the attack by Al Qaeda strengthened the political-cultural tendencies deemed neo-conservative as well as the role of religion in the public forum. Consequences of this development are easily to be registered in Europe as well, and in particular in Italy. The 'teo-cons', a phenomenon much less eccentric than the old progressive schemata would have us believe, today represent an interesting experience in itself and one that is corroborating for its Catholic components who, at the level of rational values, now find themselves less alone and marginal compared to a few years ago. However, the concentric waves that have gradually spread out since Ground Zero have produced in Italy new forms of awareness, on the specifically religious front as well. It has been much clearer that the cultural heritage of a religion and in a special way a religion centred around a precise faith, like Christianity cannot last or, to put the point better, is inevitably destined to become extinguished, where it is no longer believed in and practiced.
Here there reposes a more alert consciousness of Christian communities, the crucible that can never be abandoned of faith and culture, identity and welcome. Today, indeed, people are rightly more ready to believe that a secular society is not fatally advantaged by modules of religious irrelevance. It is perceived that in a multiracial society one will live better not by adopting the schemata of cultural indifference but rather through the adoption of forms of behaviour that respect specific sensibilities, beginning with the capillary exchange of the wealth of each creed. The 'people's carnivals' that are spreading like wildfire in our cities, far from being only an opportunity for an ethnic performance, in reality bring into psychologies and daily behaviour a new mentality based on acceptance and possible forms of integration. In this unprecedented scenario, the position of those termed 'secular' should also be reconsidered by their own authors (first and foremost) thanks to the increasingly widespread perception that religious membership is not the residue of tired realities but the irrigation of virtuous forms of behaviour called to living together in society.

Better Disposed to Change?
Where, however, the watershed of 11 September is drawn upon for more intrusive analyses, this is at the level of consequent public and political changes, the only ones that are able to document a concrete and shared-in assimilation of the inputs that can be deduced from history. Here, in this sphere, would be registered the choices destined to have a greater effect because they would constitute an intensified projection of the options engaged in by very many individual citizens. How can one deny, in fact, that faced with such tragedies the emptiness of so many banal and non-authentic aspects of our personal but also collective lifestyle become clearly visible?
It is no accident that the most significant messages from the Catholic magisterium are also to be located within this horizon. And in particular those launched by John Paul II who, on the day after the tragedy, was already suggesting that we should also look at conditions of injustice as a sphere of resolution for the great levels of violence present in the world, including terrorism. That is to say that we should engage in a personal and collective examination of conscience. And during his apostolic visit to Armenia which he wanted to make on the previously established date even though, at the end of the month of that September, it was very close to the tragedy in New York, he laid emphasis on the knowledge that 'peace can only be born of justice'. This is a subject that was then be much expanded upon in his Message for the World Day of Peace of 1 January 2002 which was published with the rather eloquent title 'There is no peace without justice, there is no justice without forgiveness'. The pastoral letter of the American Bishops, 'Living with Faith and Hope after 11 September', which was published a few days after the tragic event, expressed itself in the same terms.
The thinking of the Pope was especially explicit a year after 11 September 2001. Having made clear that terrorism is in all cases an expression of inhuman violence, which as such can never solve conflicts between human beings, John Paul II then warned: 'An agreed and resolute effort is however necessary and urgently important that will set in motion new political and economic initiatives capable of solving the scandalous situations of injustice and oppression that continue to afflict so many members of the human family thereby creating conditions that foster the uncontrollable explosion of the desire for vengeance. When fundamental rights are violated it is easy to fall prey to the temptations of hatred and violence'. And he concluded his speech by saying: 'we have to build together a global culture of solidarity that gives back to young people hope in the future'. In other words, the tragic spiral of terrorism, nourished by hate, by isolation, and by distrust, can only be broken by a change in register in international politics, with a different relationship between rich and poor nations. 'It is not possible', Pope Wojtyla would also say, 'to further ignore the causes that lead young people in desperate conditions to fall prey to the temptations of violence and hatred with the desire for vengeance at all costs'.
This is the fundamental message that the Christian Churches have developed in recent years, a message so general, in the judgement of many people, as to seem an exhortation of a pre-political kind. And instead we are here in the presence of an indication that bears within it the highest level of ethical density and political density at the same time.
Amongst the changes to be hoped for, on the part of the West, there is the new definition of the priorities of social life. Underdevelopment and poverty constitute today, in fact, the other face of Western opulence, and are therefore an inescapable junction on a par with the abolition of tariffs and the conditions for the payment of public debts. In substance, faced with the gravity, the scale and the implications of what had happened, we could but receive a strong impulse to bring out again those contents of meaning of a common membership and a common destiny of all the peoples of the earth, those contents of solidarity and courage that alone can determine a change in the lives of nations. There is a problem of seriousness about life and death on which one can build not only a possible 'security' within nations but also a better and more realistic capacity to face up to common challenges.
How many of these invitations have been taken up and metabolised by the peoples of the West, by their politicians, and by their mass media? It is difficult to say. One is always dealing with processes which, even when they are effectively unfolded, may not give rise to immediate signs of change. But we have to hope that something important is happening beyond the visible surface, in the actual reality of things, such as, for example, the educational field. Seeing things clearly, one may observe that today there is an unprecedented concern and a new sensitivity, within the Christian community as well, as regards questions connected with world fairness and the search for social and economic solutions, and solutions connected with trade and credit, that are really approached according to the criteria of greater justice. If things turn out like this, if that is to say we register beginning with these signals and the impact that can derive from them . a renewed taking on of responsibilities at a national and international level, then we will be able to say observed Cardinal Ruini on 23 September 2001 that 'the merciful providence of God will have obtained a good also from this enormous evil', an evil was unleashed on the face of the earth on 11 September 2001.

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