Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What We Now Know (Again) Ten Years after September 11

John D. Carlson


September 16, 2011
by John D. Carlson

Ceremonies and conversations marking the September 11th anniversary revived the oft-heard refrain that “9/11 changed everything.” Stirring tributes—by children raised without fathers and mothers; parents grieving murdered sons and daughters; siblings, lovers, friends, and co-workers whose voids still ache with loss—displayed how drastically some lives changed. Indeed, 75% of Americans say 9/11 significantly affected them.  Looking back, though, 9/11 also clarified changes already underway. In fact, as a Christian realist who studies religion, politics, and ethics, I wager that insights from these three areas say even more about the unchanging features of our country, ourselves, and our moral universe.

However oversimple, it’s true: religion isn’t just for Sundays anymore—meaning three things. First, we live in a religiously diverse country where people worship on Fridays, Saturdays, and many other days. From its colonial beginnings, America always has been religiously diverse for its time. The last decade simply accentuated America’s religious pluralism and its unfulfilled promise of religious freedom. Second, throughout most of the world (the US included), religion’s public prominence outside houses of worship has grown. Religion shapes peoples’ whole lives, identities, worldviews, and actions. Third, some religious extracurricular activities possess great explosive potential. From Pope Urban II to John Brown to David Koresh, violence can take distinctly religious forms. (That said, gas stations also have explosive potential, yet most people frequent them without incident.) In sum, the 9/11 decade made clear what many have known all along: we take deep religious commitments seriously because they inevitably shape the world—for good and, lamentably, for ill.

Politically speaking, the pre- and post-9/11 eras reframe an age-old dynamic. Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes described a state of nature, where life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” as philosophical justification for modern Western authoritarianism. Politics today still navigates between such anarchy and tyranny: between terrorists who traffic in chaos (Somalia being anarchy’s supreme embodiment) and Saddam’s Iraq, Qaddafi’s Libya, or Assad’s Syria. Each extreme uses the other to justify savagery. Each side also possesses a partial truth: insurgents spotlight tyrants’ illegitimacy; tyrants decry terrorist’s threats to order. Where Hobbes simply legitimized despotism, Christian political thought locates legitimacy in institutions that serve God by promoting human yearnings for justice, freedom, and order. Common to Augustine, Calvin, Bonhoeffer, and Niebuhr (among others) was the recognition that political institutions are fallible. Only transcendent moral standards can legitimate governments—or de-legitimate others. The ideals animating the Arab Spring are hardly different from those grounding Christian conceptions of legitimacy. We affirm these ideals not because they are Christian; rather, Christians affirm them because they are true. The last decade has reinforced, not changed, this moral reality.

Finally, a word on “our” shared moral life together. While resilience, courage, and strength were rightly watchwords on the tenth anniversary, we saw on 9/11—and in ensuing wars, terrorist attacks, and political crackdowns—how excruciatingly breakable the human body is. It takes only seconds to inflict physical and psychological wounds from which it takes survivors years to begin to heal. The Twin Towers were built in seven years and reduced to rubble, shards, and dust in ninety minutes. Destroying is always easier than creating, sustaining, and repairing. Politics operates rather similarly, as this decade has shown. Invading Iraq and Afghanistan was easy compared to the costly challenges of winning the peace and withdrawing responsibly. In the Middle East, dictators are quickly overthrown (especially with Twitter and Facebook), but it will take years to forge new governments, functioning institutions, and political reconciliation. At home, unprecedented violence created unity after 9/11. Yet how quickly it dissolved, how impossible it has been to rekindle, and how dysfunctional government has become as a result. This is our fragile human condition: from the soft shells of individual bodies to the rough-hewn body politic of the whole.

But again, this isn’t new. We are broken creatures living in a broken world. Thinking back, perhaps we had forgotten this before 9/11. In the decade since, we’ve now recognized the need for modesty and realism about what human beings and polities can achieve. We’ve observed that life-affirming values—justice, human dignity, and freedom—ultimately prevail, albeit rarely on our timeline. And we’ve re-learned—probably not for the last time—that true hope transcends our mortal lives, our ephemeral creations, and, yes, our fractured political undertakings.

—John D. Carlson is the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.  He participated in the Civitas public policy leadership program of the Center for Public Justice in 2001.

For more information on the relationship between religion and public life, see the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Political Community.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”