As the sudden and cataclysmic events of September 11 still ripple around Afganistan, the Far and Middle East, Russian Georgia, Malaysia, and the Phillipines, for most Americans the greatest effect by far may be felt within our own families.
Some have defined today’s battle as the struggle between cultures; the technologically backward, spiritually centered, poverty-stricken cultures of the Muslim Middle and Far East; and the materialistic, technologically advanced, wealthy civilizations of the West. Though many have sought to deny the significance of this interpretation of events, it does provide some semblance of coherence to the suicidal zealotry of a small group of people who are willing to sacrifice themselves and thousands of others in a grand gesture of hatred and rage.
We have to ask ourselves why others would want to devote years of planning and energy to the destruction, not of soldiers or armies or the agents of military power, but rather of ordinary citizens like you and me, engaged in the ordinary activities of daily life.
As is the case with all victims, the awful reality of assault provokes in us an involuntary spasm of self-examination; I thought I was a good person, but if I am a good person, why would someone choose to harm me? Our initial innate response is to wonder if we did something to deserve this treatment, if, in our ignorance or human weakness, we may have perpetrated some crime of which we were unaware and the pain and loss we now feel is just recompense for our actions.
This is the Orwellian response of the abused child; if I was not a bad child, then why would a responsible adult punish me? If I am treated badly, that must mean that I am bad.
It is only the rational, mature part of ourselves that permits us to shake free of this pernicious illusion. We are, after all, decent people, but our moral integrity is not and never has been an adequate protection from the misguided impulses of another who allows himself to believe that he can, with devastating effect, impose his intentions upon others. It is only with our critical intellect that we can examine ourselves and our world and struggle to understand – not excuse, but understand – how such narcissism evolves.
We have to wonder if the anticipated creeping invasion of secular Western popular culture – McDonald’s in Kuala Lumpur, The Gap in Tehran, MTV blasting through the sacred square in Medina – is experienced by Muslims as an assault on deeply rooted family values; do they want their children, like American children, to spend six hours a day gaping at a glowing rectangle? To produce children in sequential relationships so that the very identity of the family is destroyed? To take drugs, both prescribed and illicit, in a never ending frantic effort to achieve a stable state of euphoria? Do they want to exchange their methods of socialization for our own?
When such fears are dangled threateningly in the future then it may be more understandable – though still inexcusable – that the battle appears to be to prevent the devil American from stealing the soul of the Islamic community. And, while we must make every effort to ensure that our own communities are safe from assault, we may ask whether we have indeed allowed our families to become secular machines for the production of consumers of capital. Have we lost our fundamental relationship to spirituality, and is this vacancy an element in the virulence of the current struggle? We have to wonder if there is a lesson here, which, like most powerful life changing lessons, is both unbidden and terribly destabilizing.
Boomer Catholics can recall the gruesome images of early Christians being consumed by lions as they protested their faith; Jews can recall the epic of the Machabees defending their hilltop with their lives; Protestants can remember the Puritans who fled to the rough shores of America to escape imprisonment in Europe. There was a time, we were told, when holding to a spiritual belief was more important than life itself; and the implicit message was that we, too, should value our souls more than our social selves.
The events of September 11 lead us to question whether we teach our children anything that transcends the right schools, the right job, the right house. Do we have an answer for them, in light of the present cataclysm, when they ask; What is it all for?
Our uncertainty when we ask ourselves that question, and when we think about what to teach our children, is the reason we feel a greater response to this assault than we would have had it been the work of random madmen. It causes up to wonder if there is indeed something missing from our families and our lives; Something deep and central, and mysterious and spiritual; something worth dying for, and, more importantly, worth living for.