11 September: a tragic anniversary

April 24 2003 | by

YESTERDAY was indeed a dark day in our history, an appalling offence against peace, a terrible assault against human dignity. Pope John Paul II was speaking at a Papal Audience the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say, he continued. The condemnation of terrorism echoed in churches throughout the world in the weeks immediately following, in the statements of church leaders, the sending of condolences, and during numerous prayer services.

The primary responses of prayer and compassion for the victims and their families have continued throughout the past year. On 20 June, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, a top Vatican official, brought a message of hope from the Pope to Ground Zero in New York. The archbishop, a native of Argentina, went to the site with Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York and Archbishop Renato R. Martino, the permanent Vatican observer at the United Nations. At the steel remnant in the shape of a cross that was found after the collapse of the Trade Center towers and set up in an adjacent area, Archbishop Sandri offered prayers for the victims and their families. The Our Father was recited and yellow and white flowers - the papal colours - placed at the site. He said that all of us have been diminished, all of us have been made poorer by the death and destruction there.

Worldwide impact

The Pope articulated the worldwide impact of the attacks in his World Peace Day message of 1 January 2002. He said that people everywhere now felt a profound personal vulnerability and a new fear for the future. Justice and forgiveness were identified as the source and condition of peace. For true healing, both would be necessary to deal with the new level of violence introduced by organised terrorism, he said. At the interfaith Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on 24 January, the Pope John Paul called on the young people of every religion to be gentle and courageous guardians of true peace, based on justice and forgiveness. And they have responded. More than 6,000 young people from 72 countries gathered in Loppiano, the Italian headquarters of the Focolare Movement, in early May, to commit themselves personally to the construction of world peace. They observed a minute of silence and prayer during a telephone connection with a group from the Holy Land called Youths for a United World which includes Jews, Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs. Later that month, 9,000 Jewish, Christian and Muslim youths met in Rome's Colosseum to affirm that, despite everything, a future of peace is possible.

Inter-faith activities

In many places, inter-faith initiatives have blossomed. In India, for example, a Catholic bishop, priests and nuns joined about 5,000 people on 26 May to pray for world peace around a holy tree at Bodh Gaya where, Buddhists say, Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains and Muslims sat under the tree and sang, prayed and read out verses from their holy books, stressing the need for inter-religious peace. Jesuit Archbishop Benedict John Osta of Patna said he joined the prayer service, because such an interfaith meeting has great symbolic meaning. He pointed out that both Jesus and Buddha advocated peace. In June, world religious leaders meeting in Thailand pledged to work with political and civic leaders to reduce global tensions. This World Council of Religious and Spiritual Leaders - some 60 religious leaders and 1,200 delegates from 13 religions - formed an independent advisory body to the United Nations. The council will specifically target tensions and potential conflicts connected with religion and culture. Catholic Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi said, The council is a challenge to our new world for the values of true and lasting peace. I hope and pray that it will work.

Alternatives to violence

The year since 11 September has also seen a growth in interest in initiatives which explore alternatives to a violent response to terrorism. At the height of tensions between nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan in June, partly fuelled by the problems both countries have with 'terrorists' and 'separatists', nearly 100 young Pakistani members of the Taize community attended a two-day conference in a parish 300 miles south of Islamabad to study techniques for peacemaking. Other Christians have focused on speaking out against the US bombing of Afghanistan which began on 7 October 2001. Columban priests, staff of London's Missionary Institute, Justice and Peace campaigners, and members of Pax Christi (the Catholic International Movement for Peace) joined 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square in London on 13 October to condemn the bombing. Christians should not be afraid to give public witness and presence at times such as these, said Pat Gaffney, General Secretary of Pax Christi in Britain. Many protestors in Trafalgar Square carried banners reading, Not in our Name, echoing the words of Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, whose son Greg was one of the Trade Center victims, and who wrote to the New York Times on 15 September: Our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son's death. Not in our son's name.

Researching the impact of President Bush's 'war on terrorism' in Afghanistan in June, the US Director of Pax Christi USA travelled to that country. When I think of heroes after 11 September, I won't just think of New York firefighters; I will recall Afghan de-miners, crawling around with sticks trying to locate undetonated cluster bombs for just US$130 per month, said Dave Robinson. He accused the Pentagon of dropping the bombs in populated areas, seriously undermining long-term development. He pointed out that only 15% of Afghanistan is suitable for farming and two-thirds of that area is mined. Children have been killed and injured from picking up the small bombs, which are yellow, the same colour as meal packets also dropped by US planes. He said that Pax Christi would continue its campaign against the US use of cluster bombs which injure indiscriminitely.

US reaction

Rising global tensions and insecurity has caused many Catholics in the US to reflect deeply on their country's role as the sole superpower in a world living in fear of nuclear and biological weapons. In December 2001, the month when civilian casualties in Afghanistan due to US bombing exceeded the number of people killed in the 11 September attacks in the US, thousands of them signed a statement which called for a peaceful end to terrorism and a new Catholic paradigm to replace the 'Just War' theory. A further statement underlining the same points was issued for Pentecost 2002. This expressed concern that the Bush Administration had escalated the 'war on terrorism', particularly by moving into the Philippines and considering the expansion of the war into Iraq. Concern over the escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine was expressed, particularly accusing the US government of fuelling the conflict with military aid to Israel, thus escalating state terrorism, and failing to contribute in a determined way to a just resolution. There was anxiety too over the massive increase in the US military budget and, our country's lack of any real commitment to the eradication of poverty and exclusion and no serious steps toward righting injustices imbedded in the global economy. The Bush government was criticised for acting in isolation, abrogating treaties and ignoring multilateral agreements. US Catholics were urged to educate themselves about the underlying causes of the attacks on 11 September. We must ask ourselves what we can do to address these causes and the role of our nation, particularly as a people rooted in a gospel faith it said. There was a call, to enter an urgent and deep search for alternatives to war - for the spiritual, psychic and political space to envision and make real the 'other way' to which we are called to bear witness.

Some Catholic theologians, such as London-based Columban Fr. Frank Regan, feel that Catholics in the West generally should reflect on why the terrorists struck two symbols of Western corporate economic and military power, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He has pointed out that 60,000 people die of hunger every day and yet there is little emergency response from the powerful nations. Catholic aid agencies in the Caritas network highlighted, during the G8 summit of leaders of the rich countries in Canada in June, that while Congress approved $40bn to fight terrorism three days after the 11 September attacks, such huge sums have not been forthcoming to help the world's poor, especially in the context of looming famine in the Southern Africa region affecting 13 million people.

Catholic position on force

11 September and the ensuing war on terrorism have, at the very least, uncovered the diversity of Catholic positions on the use of force, and may drive us yet to formulate a new, synthetic, Catholic view of peace and war, said Fr. Drew Christiansen, an adviser to the U.S. bishops on international affairs, in April. On a spectrum between 'war is hell' realism to pacifist idealism, the Church's teaching lies in the middle, he added. He suggested that to win the war against terror, the US must wage peace even more vigorously than war. He drew attention to the global faith community's international agenda for economic justice, based on the Church's social reaching, which would include poverty eradication, fair trade rules, generous development assistance and debt relief. This is accompanied by calls for rigorous efforts to bring individual terrorists to justice.

The attacks of 11 September and their consequences over the past year have brought with them dilemmas for the Church. In the US, Catholic bishops have both judged US military retaliation to be necessary, though regrettable, and called for greater engagement with Islam, urging the Bush administration to work towards progressive nuclear disarmament and the playing of a more constructive and collaborative role within the United Nations structure. In the Philippines, the Bishops Conference will not condemn the presence of 4,000 US troops in the south as part of the 'war against terror', despite the private reservations of many of them, because it is clear that the presence is welcomed by some Catholics, particularly on the remote island of Basilan. Bishop Martin Jumoad of Isabela, whose diocese covers Basilan province, said he understands the people's need to feel safe. Widespread Church reservations about possible US action against Iraq were articulated by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, in March when he urged Britain and America not to take any action against Iraq which would fuel further violence in the Middle East.

During a year that has witnessed the grief, the memorials, the celebration of heroism, the coalition building and the failure to destroy the al-Qa'ida terrorist network, the words of Pope John Paul II at that Papal Audience in Rome on 12 September appear to be just as relevant today: The ways of violence will never lead to genuine solutions to humanity's problems.

Updated on October 06 2016