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U.S. learning to reflect, ask questions

The United States had almost become convinced of the idea that the world’s lone superpower could go it alone. We were far down the road of believing that our highest purpose was accumulating goods and profits.

And then came Sept. 11.

In an instant everything changed. The world became different, our sense of security, of invulnerability vanished. There was reason to fear, now, that awful things could happen at the heart of our greatest cities.

As days pass, however, it becomes clear that changes have to do with far more than what might make us afraid.

The initial talk of quick retaliation and a resolve to smoke out terrorists has been somewhat moderated. The United States has shown patience, and one can feel even a certain reflectiveness in the air, a willingness to ask questions along with expressions of determination to root out Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.

Could it be that we have learned from past experience? Could it be that our language has been seeded with the questions that arose from earlier eras, from World War II and Vietnam, so now even within government one heard cautions about civil liberties and the need to understand the deeper causes of conflict?

Could it be that our thinking has been influenced by peace advocates who keep sometimes lonely but persistent vigil at the thresholds of power; that the words of religious leaders, including our bishops in their past considerations of war and peace, had leavened the national conversation going on now?

The cardinal archbishop of New York, a post that the government could once count on for unqualified support, now raises a caution (see story, Page 10) for the warriors. “Vengeance, reprisals and retaliation are not the words of civilized people,” Edward Egan said. “Certainly we want justice to be done if we can identify responsible groups and individuals, but we don’t want to make ourselves complicit in a series of injustices” by striking at people “who are not implicated.”

He urged a national examination of conscience, saying, “To do so is not to say that there were necessarily errors committed, though there might have been,” Egan said. “But we should ask, how do we account for what has happened?”

Other changes are easier to detect, forced as they are by the new circumstances. It is difficult to continue to preach the gospel of extreme individualism at the same time that ringing cries for unity are being issued. It is tough to sell a war and the possibilities of wartime sacrifice unless everyone is convinced we’re in this together and that the sacrifice is for the common good, an expression that has not found much favor in U.S. political speech of recent vintage.

The public outlook in recent days has been rather communitarian. We have become keenly aware that the horrible losses are losses for the entire world community, not just a nation, a family, a city or a religious or ethnic group.

Getting government off our backs is no longer the primary concern. We tacitly recognize the limits of the private sector and look eagerly for government to take charge, to give us answers, to provide a vision. The firefighters and police who lost their lives selflessly working to save others were not working out of a profit motive; they weren’t “lazy government bureaucrats.”

Through it all, God has surfaced in a new way, all over television and newspapers. It may be in a superficial way that the Almighty is being called on in some circumstances. More significant is the public recognition that the God being invoked is not the sole property of a single group or denomination, but is, indeed, the God of the various religions. Those who had appropriated God to their own absolute purposes, be it in the extremes of Islam or Christianity, are now being shown as frauds, as those who would sow hate in the name of an ideology or national purpose.

We are just beginning -- before any bombs have been dropped -- to ask ourselves difficult questions. If there is an American distinction it is the tolerance we can show for discussion of the difficult balancing act we must perform between strong government and individual freedoms; between war and peace; between tenets of faith and military might; between justice and mercy; between being that lone superpower and being able to hear the groaning of millions beneath the roar of terror.

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001