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After the observance, life’s complexity quickly returns


Many of us attended commemorative events for Sept. 11. In the immediate aftermath of those events, what had we heard that was practical? And, more broadly, what points do we find it hard to ponder?

I attended two gatherings. One meeting was interfaith, another primarily Catholic (and as I write this, I’m scheduled to attend a prayer service at a mosque on Sunday).

At both gatherings, as soon as the discussion went beyond the immediate commemoration, it was amazing how complex the terrain became.

First, however, the high notes of this particular time. Nationwide, the coming together to honor the dead was fitting, heartfelt and built unity. The period that followed Sept. 11, 2001, has been a unique moment for interfaith and inter-religious communities.

To some extent, Sept. 11 may have shown the larger community and interfaith organization members their worth, the value of believers linked together organizationally across denomination and faith lines. These organizations did help hold the hands of all Americans. Understanding, compassion and concern was strengthened by the existence of interfaith organizations.

Next, American Muslims were the religious group hardest hit -- specifically and lastingly affected by the fallout from Sept. 11.

Much was said about the need to get to know better these American neighbors.

One recommendation I liked as a starting point surfaced at a California “intentional conversation” sponsored by the Marymount College of Rancho Palos Verdes board of trustees at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center.

Some 55 people, Christians, Jews and Muslims attended.

Though only mentioned in passing, analogy was drawn between our feelings today and the surprise and shock that followed the 1957 launching of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, by the Soviet Union.

As a consequence, U.S. school systems and colleges added Russian to their languages curriculum.

The idea was proposed at the “intentional conversation” that to better understand and function in our wider world, U.S. schools should add Arabic to their curriculum. Many Americans, as individuals and small groups, have apparently taken it upon themselves to learn more about their Islamic neighbors. Those are good initiatives in neighborliness.

Take that thought global. Knowing our Arab world neighbors would be enhanced enormously if, when we conversed, we could do it in their language, rather than ours.

Apparently, convincing school systems is easier said than done.

Akhtar Emon, an American Muslim who attended the California “intentional conversation” -- he’s an engineer, now retired, much involved in building mosques in the region -- has tried for more than three years.

The Los Angeles public school system would like 35 teachers of Arabic. The University of California would like high school students with fundamental Arabic as college students, he said, because otherwise the university system ties up highly specialized professors of Arabic studies in teaching elementary language courses.

The university would help educated Arabic speakers through their teacher accreditation, said Emon. But, chicken and egg, he added, the school system wants him to find the teachers -- and the students who would be interested.

The school systems want the Arabic teachers but not the cost of training them. (To see some of Emon’s handiwork, try www.hadi.org/alif and www.islamicity.com.)

That said, on to the difficult territory.

At both sessions I was the person rounding out and summing up the mood of the discussion. At each I pulled on the same unwilling-to-be-addressed difficulty.

There exists no justification for the pre-emptive and barbarous attack that Sept. 11 represents. That’s the given. And yet, might the world have been different, and less accommodating to murderous anti-American terrorist assaults had we, the United States and the West, for the past three or four decades, made a sustained assault on world poverty and stuck to it?

While admitting that terrorists do not play by rules of justice, I mentioned Paul VI’s, “If you want peace work for justice,” and “Development is the new name for peace.”

The analogy I used, which I borrowed from Sr. Rose Waldron, a Daughter of Mary and Joseph who served in Burundi, was this. Around 1980, UNICEF wanted to eliminate malaria worldwide. The discussion was widespread and had a fine precedent in the elimination of smallpox.

The easy way of identifying the costs involved in defeating malaria was that it was about the equivalent of that spent on one nuclear submarine.

Nothing much was done.

And 22 years later, the United States has its first cases of West Nile virus.

The intelligent audience understood the analogy.

Quite understandably, for we are a diverse society, not all those present liked it. Some Americans continue to believe that the United States is remarkably generous in “throwing money” at the rest of the world.

Another person -- and both points were well made and well taken -- commented that the oil sheiks had the money, let them spend that. Those who work among America’s poor said, and again one can easily agree, there’s work to be done in this nation’s undeveloped and underdeveloped regions.

How I see it, perhaps myopically, is that in the family of nations, as in the smaller family, one takes care of one’s own and also tries hard for others.

But after Sept. 11, as before Sept. 11, get into the issue of the United States having humanitarian roles in the world equal to its economic and military roles, and the rifts are wide indeed.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. He can be reached at: arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002