Thursday, August 5

Reflections on September 11 … Seventeen Years Later

As of today, it has been 17 years since two Boeing colleagues, whom I will call Roger and Ted, and I traveled on Boeing business to Salt Lake City to spend a few days working at the small Boeing engineering office there.  We had flown in the previous day, 10 September, and spent that day walking around the city, four-wheeling around the rough terrain surrounding the Lake, taking a hair-raising drive up into the front range of the Wasatch Mountains, visiting the Mormon Tabernacle, and strolling around Park City, before going to dinner at a local steak house. Next morning, 11 September, I turned on the TV in my room to watch the news as I got dressed. I was mildly surprised at being greeted by what appeared to be a picture of the World Trade Center towers burning. I say only “mildly surprised” because I immediately assumed I had accidentally tuned the channel to an action movie, something like Arnold Schwartzenegger’s soon-to-be-released (at the time)  Collateral Damage, about a terrorist attack on the US. But when I reached for the remote to switch to the news, I discovered that according to the network logo on the TV screen … no … I was watching CNN. What I saw happening was real. I met Roger and Ted in the hotel restaurant for breakfast, as originally planned, but neither of us had much appetite. We spent the rest of the day in a few previously scheduled pro forma business meetings, but our minds were actually concentrated where everyone else’s was:  on events in New York, culminating in the collapse of the Towers. Our eyes were on the PowerPoint presentation of the moment, but our ears were tuned to the sound of the news playing over the TV monitors set up throughout the office complex -- which is how we found out the Towers were falling.


On the 15-hour drive back to Seattle in our rental car – all commercial flights were grounded – we talked a lot but said nothing.  We talked mainly for the sheer comfort of hearing a familiar human voice. Now, 17 years later, I have had time for reflection. The following is a brief summary of my conclusions, given my 17-year perspective:

o The West is not involved in a war against Islam:  that is true, but just true enough to be dangerously misleading

It is by now de riguer for any American politician – with the conspicuous exception of Donald Trump and his neo- / para-fascist devotees – to say that the United States is not at war with Muslims per se or Islam or the Muslim world. I would certainly agree with all that.  My wife and I have a couple dozen devout, observant Muslim friends that, along with their kids, we consider – nor just casual acquaintances – but de facto family.  Our enemy, the enemy of the West, is not a religion. Our enemy, rather, and the enemy of Islam as well as of the United States, is something far more dangerous than a religion. Our enemy is the psychopathology that always – without exception or qualification – always is spawned when religious enthusiasm, any religious enthusiasm, but most especially and specifically any monotheistic religious enthusiasm, is allowed to grow and to metastasize without the intervening moderation of reason, respect for evidence, and what one might call “epistemological humility”, understood as the conviction that all human knowledge is finite and approximate.  Whenever the adherents of any religion become convinced that they have monopolized truth to such an extent that their deity has uniquely commissioned them to run roughshod over evidence and reason in order to coerce others who differ, then, whatever else may happen, one may be metaphysically certain that violence will ensue and that blood will flow. But in that case, even when the virus of unmoderated religious enthusiasm infects, Ebola-like, any given religion, even then the enemy is still not the religion, any more than an individual person infected by the Ebola Zaire virus is the enemy. The person is the victim. The enemy is the virus.

Batalla_de_rocroi_por_Augusto_Ferrer-DalmauWe have seen all this before.  Europe in the 1500s and 1600s was consumed by religious violence, all of whose belligerents were utterly convinced that they had a Divine right to enforce on others their vision of a supernaturally ordained religious and political order, their vision of the good life, their vision of morality, their interpretation of the Bible, and their vision of the Church and its doctrines. To cite only a single example, whole villages and cities were burned – many several times over the course of two centuries -- and whole nations in central Europe laid waste in the great abattoir of the Thirty Years War, which was only ended in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia and the sheer exhaustion of the warring parties. What saved Western civilization, aside from sheer exhaustion, was that this same time period coincided with the golden age of exploration and science, both of which, over time, renewed human beings' confidence in the competence of autonomous human reason, untrammeled by the strictures of  religious power, to understand the world, and to construct systems of morality and socio-political structures conducive to human welfare. The European Enlightenment was the vaccine that inoculated Western / European culture against the virus of rampant, unmediated religious enthusiasm. To be sure, there is no reason for complacency. From time to time, the West has declined to take the vaccine and its "booster" shots, of course, thereby electing to travel "back to the future" so as to live in the early 16th century. (Incidentally, this is perhaps the most insidious effect of the postmodernist spirit:  postmodernist nihilism makes it easier to rationalize glossing over the principles of  the Enlightenment valuation of rationality, moderation, and tolerance, and in the process weakening the West's hard-won immune system against religious fanaticism.) The result has always, without exception, been war, chaos, and bloodshed.


But -- as a whole -- the Muslim world has never undergone anything analogous to the Enlightenment. So in the Muslim world, there is -- so far -- no analogous vaccine against that virus. We saw the result on 11 September 2001, when four planes, commandeered by people who, operating under the imperatives of unrestricted religious passion, flew airplanes full of people into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and, but for a sublime act of heroism, would have flown a fourth plane into the White House or the Capitol. What I was seeing on the TV in my hotel room was nothing less than a 21st-century version of the Thirty Years War played out in miniature.

o Radically scaled-back expectations of God

Up until 11 September 2001, I had spent my life as a believing, practicing, faithful Christian of one denominational type or another. Throughout all those changes, one constant was my conviction that God -- for want of a better term -- "does stuff":  from time to time, in breathtakingly subtle ways, God intervenes in human history in general and in individual lives in particular in such a way as to further what we at the time called, and many people still call, "the Kingdom [or Reign] of God". As I said ... the belief was that God "does stuff." Or as the old Scholastics would express it, God is an "efficient cause" in somewhat the same way that Ichiro Suzuki was the "efficient cause" of his 3,000th hit. Of course, I gave lip service to the idea that God is ganz andere -- "wholly Other" -- and therefore not susceptible to being described in terms of Aristotelian categories -- including categories of causality. But that was only on the level of the head.  On a visceral level, I was a typical Christian, who rejects such categories as a matter of intellect -- but who nevertheless hugs them to himself as a matter of the heart. Most Christians, I find, are like this:  we want, I wanted, perhaps still want, Someone -- with a capital "S" -- to be In Charge.


Then I saw the Towers collapse. I saw on TV the smoke from the Pentagon impact. And I heard of the passengers' valor on United flight 93 in bringing down the fourth plane near Shanksville, PA ... and my face was ignominiously rubbed in the stinking dung of this very contradiction between what my head knows and what my heart wants. For about a year, I was haunted by the belief that I was the only one whose face -- and whose faith -- had been thus humiliated.  That perception, however, was radically, radically changed in early September of 2002 when I saw a PBS documentary that haunts me to this day:  Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. If you have not seen it, I recommend -- in fact, I beseech you -- that you do so. Seeing this documentary was revolutionary because, even though my church community at the time never seriously or more than in passing, discussed the events of 9/11, I discovered that, at least in the case of the people PBS interviewed, there was an incredible spectrum of reactions, ranging from doubling down on previous beliefs -- one Episcopal minister was basically ostracized by his congregation for participating in an inter-faith memorial service that included a couple of Muslim imams -- to at least incipient atheism. I recall in particular one especially poignant interviewee who said that, even though he still goes to church, the events of 9/11 had left him with a greatly diminished respect for God -- which I took to mean that, though his faith is substantively intact, his respect is largely gone, rather like a man who chooses to remain married to a woman who has committed adultery. (Again, that is my interpretation.) Post-9/11, I found myself in essentially the same position as that man.  I realized that no god was "in charge". Only human beings. And that no god is going to save us from the consequences of our own cupidity, our own folly. I no longer, post-9/11, expect God to do anything, to "do stuff". Jesus is quoted in the New Testament as saying faith can move mountains. I disagree. Dynamite and bulldozers, maybe, but not faith. "With God all things are possible." Perhaps. Maybe all things are possible with God. But ... this hot off my Twitter feed:  I am not God.

So, post-9/11, am I an atheist or not? I often use the "a-word" purely for the sake of brevity as a convenient shorthand description for who / what I am now. Saves time. Saves the trouble of explaining something that many people would not understand, anyway. But it is an oversimplification. I no longer believe in a personal, "in-charge" God -- and, in fact, I think belief in such a God has wreaked untold havoc in human history. (See above point [1] about religious warfare and the Enlightenment.) But as my belief in that kind of monotheistic, arse-kicking-and-name-taking, "in-charge", efficient-Cause, flat-tire-fixing, cancer-healing God has declined, I find that my sensitivity and susceptibility to experiences of the numinous has increased. I wrote about one such experience at my father-in-law's funeral back in April of 2014. But there have been others, e.g., my experience in the 13th-century Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas one dark, drizzly afternoon of 2007, when Diane and I visited Galway, Ireland, and I found myself wandering through the shadowy interior of the Church mentally quoting lines from T. S. Eliot that I was not consciously aware of ever having memorized. Or the time I saw a perfect spider web in my back yard in late autumn, after the overnight dew had frozen on it and limned it into a heartbreakingly delicate lattice of diamond. In any case, for me now, post-9/11, my belief in the Divine -- given both history and personal experience, I am much averse to using the word "God" -- subsists in my personal experience of people and the Universe. Both mean more than they say, probably more than they can say, on the surface. We are inevitably bound to language. But we are not bound by language.

In that sense, finally, I become ever more grateful with each passing year to the early-18th-century architects of the European Enlightenment, whose emphasis on rationality and on this world -- whose secularity and whose secularism, to speak plainly -- broke up the constipation of rule-based, creed-based, propositionally based, and doctrine-based monotheistic, top-down religion and, it may be against those architects' very intentions, broke up the soil of the Western spirit into a fertile field where a broader definition of spirituality-as-numinosity could germinate, take root, and flourish. For many people, of course, religion is still a tap-root of life without which they could not live. But for many of us -- as for many of the people interviewed in Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero -- the eclipse of God rendered our interior sky dark enough to see the more subtle light of the truly and more inclusively Holy. And thanks to the West's collective experience of the Enlightenment, both have room to co-exist.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
Flag at Ground Zero ... National Park Service ... public domain
2 WTC at moment of impact ... Flickr ... CC BY-SA 2.0
"Salon de Madame Geoffrin" ... Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier ... public domain
Thirty Years War ... Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau ... CC by SA 3.0
"The Doubt of St. Thomas" ... Caravaggio ... public domain


  • Thanks for sharing your journey.. Like you everything changed for me on September 11th. My faith was utterly transformed by September 11th. I left those early months after it with the growing (and now settled) conviction that — if I were to remain connected to religion — my religion would have to be a force for good on planet earth. The good of all. No more “those people” — the “lost” etc.. I quit all attachments to exclusionary caucuses. I practice an inner universalism, Not able yet or willing to totally apostatize in front of conservative folks, but seeking always to influence them. I practice a non-dualistic faith, such as Richard Rohr has written about., I’m open to religious templates for justice, such as MLK Jr employed, but am open to no other religious templates which blanket all humanity with a label.

    But September 11th is not an isolated event. Sam Harris’ recent podcast “What Do Jihadists Really Want” (Waking Up Podcast) needs as broad a listening as possible. There is a terrible darkness in the world. It is not Islam. True. But other words can be found: Salafists who practice Taqfiri, these words can be helpful. Islamist Jihadists, and other words. We need to know what we’re fighting. The people who go to work every day to de-radicalize these ISIS types need our full support. Prisons are apparently college for radicalization. This has to change,

    Again thank you. This is a fight, and it cannot be lost.

    • Sorry to be late in replying. Our blog software does not always or consistently display comments. I often have to explicitly edit the URL to see comments. Such was the case this time.

      My experience suggests that 9/11 resulted in either (a) people doubling down on their previous beliefs, like the Anglican / Episcopalian congregation that ostracized the minister; or (b) people undergoing some kind of profound change — not necessarily becoming atheists, but not “business as usual” either. Either way, (a) or (b), it was a kind of Damascus-Road conversion.

      I think I had been in the process of changing for some time before 9/11 as a result of my experiences in Boston and in Seattle getting my PhD and MDiv, respectively. My head, I think, would have ended up where it is now, sooner or later — basically somewhere between being an atheist and a half-assed Buddhist — but 9/11 pushed me over the liner to “sooner”.

      But either way, it would have been a conversion experience.

      Thanks for reacting. I really do care about comments, but sometimes the software delays my being cognizant of them.


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