Reflections on Tenth Anniversary of 9-11

One of the most enduring visual memories I took from St Petersburg were the candles in the Orthodox churches. 

People of all ages enter to pray inside.
The candles are exceptionally thin and much longer than the sort of candles used in churches at home.

As we approach this Sunday and the tenth anniversary of the insanity of 9/11, I am reminded of all the killing that still goes on in in the shadow of 9/11 and yet this is one  phrase that sits with me this week:

It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark.

The proverb inspired Adlai Stevenson, when he came to praise Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1962 address to the United Nations General Assembly: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”

The proverb also inspired the founder of Amnesty International who created the “candle wrapped in barb wire” logo – such a powerful and recognizable image.  

Indeed, when faced with the horror and ugly perverse manifestations of evil, we are urged to think that it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.

On Sunday we will all be in reflective mood on the dark places in our world- The horrific backdrop of the twin towers are seared and embedded into our memory.
The vivid immediacy of the horror has the power to still jolt and shock me, despite the fact that there are numerous other horrific images of terrorism that have invaded my consciousness and very being since 2001.

The world seems locked in an ever ending struggle between a fight for freedom and the fear of further terrors and atrocities designed to cause maximum loss of life.
The tenth anniversary will revisit and haunt our collective as well as our unique memory of that day: in the chilling video footage and the graphic images that seemed unimaginable even after it had happened:
The bright blue sunlit sky that began the day, the vicious slashes left by the two planes entering the mighty 110 stories of the twin towers that yet oddly and sickly replay like a knife going through butter; talking of knives, I can't look at a Stanley boxcutter knife anymore without thinking of 9-11. 
Planes as bombs stuffed with a cargo of people;the dust covered faces of survivors, the stifling, the shrapnel of soft bodies cascading in free fall, a Golgotha in the debris left by manacled steel.The Pentagon, Flight 93 , where the phrase "Let's roll" took on a heroic meaning and the often derided mobile phone took on a halo for its use as a final contact from victims to loved ones moments before they died.

The sympathy towards America at that time was profound for recognition of a cruel crime on a vast scale.
I think of the vocabulary spawned by the events of 9-11: Jihad, Gauntanamo bay, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, Taliban police, home grown Muslim terrorists.
In the face of it all what can we do- 
what shall we talk to each other about ten years on ?

I travelled to Morocco again this year, a predominantly Muslim state to try and confront some of my own apprehensions and perceptions about Muslims and came away convinced that in spite of what divides us we have more in common that should be able to unite us. For sure, I had met a few UK Muslims in the past but I wanted to go to a country where the Muslim faith and culture predominated.
Talking to various individuals enabled me to realise forcibly that they felt just as vulnerable and lack the same peace of mind for the appalling actions of vengeful extremists as I do. 

I came away feeling that there was as much apprehensive soul searching among the "average Muslim " about how we are to live peaceably together in this world as there are amongst Christians and non believers.

At every turn in the places I visited : Fez, Casablanca and Marrakesh people stopped and welcomed us to their country and were at pains to say that Morocco was a liberal state and not like "the other radical Muslim countries". 

Yet on return to the  UK an Al Quaida bomb exploded in a restaurant in the square of Marrakesh where we had taken coffee only a few weeks before, only highlighting the fact how terrorism is a violent tool specifically aimed at creating fear and will continue to manifest in our lives.

I find a shared longing for good things to come out of all of this- the atmosphere of fear, all the rage , the anger, the suffering- the price of vengeance will always be too high.

Military solutions can only buy time because for long term peace dialogue and political solutions are the only way forward.

It seems to me that we need a burst of brilliance into the abyss of shock and grief,loss, anxiety, fear and tension that grips so many peoples lives.

One person said at a prayer service  for 9/11 "Damn these candles that will not illuminate this sort darkness."

The light of so many lives were put out that day and since - some felt there was a profound impact on our perception of our whole way of life, a loss of innocence, and a deepening uncertainty and mistrust of how our governments would use new powers to further erode civil liberties.

The Afghanistan war had a greater unity of purpose that was then severely tested after the illegal war in Iraq : Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11- and it polarised public opinion.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Western democratic governments to know when and where to intervene and when not to tolerate threats.
9/11  did alter the perception and consciousness of the world .

What now ? 
The threat level was lowered earlier in the summer-  peace is possible- who would have thought that Northern Ireland could have turned out the. The Arab spring- opens up the possibility of a more enlightened set of Arab leaders and gives some cause for optimism- the immediate fear has faded but not disappeared.

There is much dark to curse in our world and  there can be no doubt that we have a great many candles to light.  When faced with tragic, ugly, perverse manifestations of evil, seeping into our lives like poison in the ground water, they say it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.

But there is always some truth in the fact that the faults we hate the most in others are usually the ones that remind us most of our selves- the high values we tout in Western democracies by custom and religion are in almost constant conflict with the savageries of human nature. When I visited St Petersburg there were constant reminders of the vast numbers of deaths in Russia's history.
Of the various estimates of the total number of victims of Stalin, the median is 30 million.The worst genocides of the twentieth century in this list here
provide sobering thought of our human inability to resolve conflict peaceably. 

Three thousand people died on 9-11 and many more since. 
On Sunday when we gather to watch the beams of light sweep the sky above the cries of pain from the 9-11 memorial centre I can't but wonder about the inconsistency of our actions in a wider sweep of our values - when 12 million people are dying from starvation in Africa what does that say abut our committment to equal rights of the individual against the crushing oppression of famine and hunger ?

Whenever people remember the loss of life in any type of conflict it has become commonplace to say : "Lest We Forget ": from the ashes of the Holocaust to the killing fields of any country the trail of human history is always there to prevent us from forgetting. 

On Sunday we will be right to remember the heroism of so many that day and in the days afterwards: much has already been said about the firefighters, the Franciscan priest Fr Mychal Judge who was the first registered victim that day: but there are countless others whose names and faces we will never know but who selflessly helped and supported others. They need remembering too on Sunday.

In the aftermath of 9-11 there are many who feel that the malaise of the world is in some part due to a deeper cultural amnesia that we have forgotten the roots upon which the best part of human nature depends.

The decision by New York Mayor Bloomberg to exclude prayers from clergy at this Sunday's Ground zero memorial event in this report is controversial and to my mind plays right into the hands of the terrorists mindset who must be delighted that they have managed to expunge a place for public declaration of faith in God at such an important time. 

This article following the Norway massacre in July this year shows how easy it is to allow ourselves to be sucked into tides of paranoia and suspicion against any particular group and also invites public debate on the power of words to influence debate.

There was a hope that the audacity of 9/11 that grabbed and shocked the world should be matched by a committment to tackle the threat to freedom and human rights wherever it occurred.

Bin Laden is now dead but realistically the world remains a dangerous place and terrorist groups will continue to instil fear and inflict damage and try to disrupt normal life - the prospect of biological chemical or nuclear terrorism is a real concern- our future security will always be ever fragile. 

When people say that the 9-11 was an attack on freedom itself because it violated our right to live free from fear we may forget that there is no single narrative that can explain the world. 

The perspective of many Muslims is so different from our own, because what they fear is the extremes of our Western immorality and materialism. They despise what they see as our cynical exploitation of resources and willingness to support corrupt regimes to support our greed for capitalism. 

Robert Fisk points out that the authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan in their book Eleventh Day state that :
"All the evidence ... indicates that Palestine was the factor that united the conspirators – at every level,"  One of the organisers of the attack believed it would make Americans concentrate on "the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel". Palestine, the authors state, "was certainly the principal political grievance ... driving the young Arabs (who had lived) in Hamburg".

We are a still a long distance away from negotiation with terrorists- but to make efforts to have a conversation is vital.

It was genuinely hard to expect the USA to do nothing in the face of such atrocity and many people supported the war in Afghanistan to seek the perpetrators of 9/11 but far less supported the war in Iraq.

There is a systemic element to evil, a communal level to evil always present in monstrous crimes.  

But it has become fashionable to believe that individuals involved are human beings, and as such are not evil. 

We are taught to believe that there are structures of evil that are built up, which we participate in or rebel against, or comply with out of necessity.  

Large scale evil is supposedly built; it is organized. There are structures that perpetuate racism, war, environmental degradation, economic disparity. These structures are open sores of evil.  
Goodness too must be organized.  Great evil and great good are done through organized structures.  You and I participate in both kinds. 

This is the work we are called to do: weave and reweave the fabric of life rather than tear at it to bring it down;  to always light the candle and curse the dark.  

Adrienne Rich said, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed, I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, and with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
So much has been destroyed; there is much to curse and much to cause us anger. I can only hope that we learn to do both- to light the candles while still cursing the dark. 
Do I really believe it when I say I do not believe in evil people but in evil deeds – rather in the distorted structures that oppress and tear the fabric of life rather than individual evil ?

I am not always able to be clear about this but all I can do is hope so, – an appreciation of the complexity of human nature,  a love of the inherent goodness of humanity, and a will ready always  to rebuild from the ashes of destruction is all I can hope for.

My faith in institutional religion  these days is often at a low ebb.
We live in a dark world, a world waiting for light, a world in dire need of people who are able to face the dark shadow in ourselves as well as our institutions.

We need a willingness to speak the truth and to help people recognize the power of Christ to overcome the darkness and scapegoating that goes on in our world.

Candles are an eternal symbol used by humans throughout the world to preserve and give meaning for the often overwhelming events in life,; where words fail they are the carriers of meaning : of solidarity, endurance and regenerative power and energy.

Candles represent a light in the dark, the spark of God’s love and light that lives inside all of us even in our darkest times.

On Sunday I hope to find a quiet place to sit alone and I will light a candle and try to feel that spark inside me, and I will hold onto it with all my might, even if I feel unable to breathe any more life into that spark.
Any words I offer in prayer will simply be a humble plea to God that invite me to an awareness of something that is far greater than the capacity of my human mind to understand.

I will force myself to pray that I will choose light over darkness even when my heart is broken.

When I light my candle I will remind myself that in this life I can only ever see and understand God in part.
On Sunday I will pray that God will shine a light on this suffering world and give all of us the strength to restore our anguished  spirits, our minds, and our hearts in the spirit of Christ.

I will pray that no matter what evil happens to us in this world that we can be radically transformed and transfigured by our desire to be there right in the heart of suffering and to know that is where Christ our God will come to meet and hold all of us in reconciliation.

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