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The first time I heard the question “Why?” put clearly and unequivocally during hours of coverage last weekend was from a young woman who appeared to be of high school age. She was part of a gathering of students of varying ages in a special conducted by ABC anchor Peter Jennings.

In subsequent days the question surfaced a few more times, trying desperately, it seemed, to poke through the anger, grief and preparations for war that have followed the terrorism of Sept. 11. A Muslim cleric on one show, pushed to explain why, recounted his own experiences as a black in South Africa and the feeling of the wider Arab world that this world is not recognized, that its grievances remain unheard in the West. A Middle Eastern writer on another show, like everyone else who speaks on the matter, condemned Osama bin Laden and his mad cohorts. But, she warned, there are legitimate grievances and they must be heard. The host responded that this is not the time to expect rational discourse. She said this is the time when it is most needed.

To ask the question, as John Allen makes clear in this week’s cover story, does not mean an endorsement of a point of view that might emerge. Asking the question, however, might lead to some sober analysis. Even the most hard-line proponents of “hunting down” terrorist Osama bin Laden and breaking up his terrorist network agree that his capture might not be the end but rather, as one pundit put it, “the beginning of the beginning” of an escalation of terrorist activity throughout the West.

That’s why we have to ask “Why?”

If we don’t ask that question and probe for answers, then all we will be doing is fighting symptoms of a deeper malady.

On the morning of Sept. 18 the news flashed across the screen that an Indian man wearing a turban had been killed, the victim of a drive-by shooting in Phoenix. At the time, it was merely the latest in a growing list of attacks on Arab Americans, Indians, Asians and others who were unfortunate enough to conform to an image of the enemy in the minds of those looking for people to hate.

President Bush, in a clear act of leadership and humanity, visited a mosque this week and made it clear that the violence done to the United States was a distortion of Islam. We hope his strong, uncompromising words send a clear message that hate crimes will not be tolerated.

A story on Page 12 catalogues the major insults to Arab Americans and others, as well as Islamic institutions in the United States since the terrorist attack on Sept. 11. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll keep a record of such incidents. In the meantime, how about special efforts to get to know members of the Muslim community in your city? We would be glad to know of initiatives taken in this direction.

Throughout the days following the attacks, inspiring examples of heartfelt religious conviction and activity were abundant. Across the country young and old of every ethnic background and religious persuasion gathered in prayer and turned out to alleviate the national suffering in countless ways.

There were instances, to be certain, where the symbols and language of religion seemed to be placed unquestioningly at the service of the national agenda: During a service at the National Cathedral, President Bush was handed the pulpit to essentially repeat a declaration of war. Managing Editor Pamela Schaeffer reported that a large outdoor interfaith service in St. Louis ended with a flyover by a military jet. I don’t want to seem too much the curmudgeon in this. It is impossible to perfectly separate out emotions at this time.

As Steven Picha says in the Page 6 article by Rich Heffern, the flag and candle together at prayer are understandable at the moment. We are bringing all of our emotions and grief to prayer. All of us are trying to find out what the power of the reign of God means in such a circumstance. How are Christians, for instance, to be guided by the gospels’ demanding instructions on forgiveness?

One of the challenges of the days ahead, I think, will be to have the perspective and wisdom to ask the questions that are formed by faith, questions that might well challenge decisions shaped solely by political and military considerations.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001