On Sept. 11, 2001, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks traumatized, and also galvanized, our nation. As we stand 20 years removed from the horrors of that day, the perspective afforded by time is sobering.
We rightly continue to mourn the thousands of lives lost. We rightly remember and revere the countless heroic efforts made to preserve life in New York City, Washington D.C., and over a field in Pennsylvania. Yet, the passage of time has done nothing to alleviate the invasive evil unleashed upon our nation that infamous day.
Standing on the still smoldering rubble of the Twin Towers, President Bush declared through a bull horn that those who destroyed the towers would soon hear from America. The exuberant cheers of his auditors seemed to reflect the mood of the nation, even the mood of a then unified Congress. Something had to be done and we were ready to respond. To many it seemed so simple. War was the answer, at least an answer. We were punched in the mouth. We had to strike back.
Twenty years removed from that aggressive response, reality has proven harsh. Two decades of war in Afghanistan ended with the Taliban in control and al-Qaida and ISIS networks fully operational under that nation’s cover. Today we are faced with the grim lesson that ideological terrorism is no undersized bully to be pummeled into submission. It is a cancer that eats away at the flesh of human flourishing. Doses of militaristic chemotherapy may weaken the cancer, so to speak; but no manner of resolve on our part will ever destroy it. On Sept. 11, 2001 a naïve hope seemed to prevail that we could crush the head of terrorism. Twenty years later, we realize we must live with it.
Another bitter reality after 20 years is that the galvanizing effects of the Sept. 11 attacks on America seem to have evaporated. No one imagined terrorist attacks would unify the nation for long. But twenty years removed few would describe our nation as unified around any belief or cause whatsoever. In a sad irony, 9/11 remains a more galvanizing influence on jihadists worldwide than on Americans.
As reported by Newsweek, a prominent al-Qaida publication celebrated the anniversary of 9/11 by issuing a general call for members to find ways to repeat the atrocities of that day. Their gleeful remembrance demonstrated that those atrocities continue to unite and inspire jihadists. Any corresponding unity or inspiration on our part seems to have leached away. We continue to mourn. As citizens incapable of counterterrorism efforts, we have little idea what else to do.
One additional bitter reality is the place law enforcement officers now occupy in the public realm. On 9/11, America’s esteem for first responders, fire fighters and police officers skyrocketed. The courage and sacrifice these public servants displayed that day, and in the weeks to follow, inspired the nation. The Savage Police Chaplain corps was organized with enthusiasm in that context.
For reasons unrelated to 9/11, it is disheartening to witness the societal response to police officers 20 years later. Morale is low. Recruiting has plummeted. Quality candidates are turning their ambitions to other fields of service. The reasons are complex and the negative regard for law enforcement officers far from universally held. Yet the degree of rejection suffered by police in our nation since 9/11 constitutes a sobering change.
Officers sworn to protect the defenseless, officers who spend their lives looking for the very people the rest of us hope never to meet, are regarded by a loud minority as the problem. On 9/11 they were the solution. They were those who ran in to give their lives while others ran away to save their own. We must indeed address problems with policing, but police are not the new terrorists. As a fraternity they deserve the respect we afforded them on 9/11, but that is not where matters stand today.
These and similar developments since 9/11 are disconcerting. They are not, however, the final word. They need not fill us with despair. These developments collectively help us see our need to look upward for grace and mercy. The world is bigger than we can control and evil is a persistent reality in that world. But there is a God who is bigger than evil and his throne is a place where justice and mercy meet (Hebrews 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9).
Suffering presses us to consider divine justice, even to find hope in it. Suffering also incites us to seek divine mercy. If events since 9/11 have that effect on any of us, loss becomes gain. Calling out for God’s mercy, and trusting in his just provision of saving grace is the ultimate counter to the terrors of evil — not only those out there in the wide world, but those that lodge in our own hearts.