In the years following September 11, we were inundated with images and slogans about fear. 'Extremists abound.' 'We must fight.' 'America is at war.' As the U.S. government adapted to the challenge of terrorism, it made a consistent error: fighting terror by terrifying people.
The government clearly needs to protect it citizens against the physical threat of terrorism. But terrorism is in large part a psychological battle. What of its emotional impact? Who is there to help people recover from traumatic events and - equally important - ensure that society is strong enough to endure the possibility of others in the future?
That role, it would seem, is increasingly falling to religious communities. Religious leaders are in a unique position to provide care and comfort to their congregants. Yet terrorism poses a serious challenge even to the clergy most trained in pastoral care counseling. Religious leaders are compelled not only to counsel their congregants but also make sense of traumatic incidents and the fear they cause. They must heal from the pulpit as much as in the counseling session, at interfaith gatherings as much as at closed meetings for lay leaders. Most of all, they must provide authentic responses to fear from within their traditions.
An upcoming conference in the Washington, D.C. area is taking a closer look at the role that religion can play in responding constructively to terror. Entitled "Managing Fear through Faith," it hopes to bring together policymakers and religious leaders to determine how religious communities can be better integrated into the emotional response to incidents of terror. Of great significance, the event is co-sponsored not only by the New America Foundation and the U.S. in the World Initiative, among others, but also a mosque, synagogue, and church. (Full disclosure: I will be presenting a paper at the conference.)
Yet even as conference attendees try to determine how religious communities can "work together to strengthen America's social fabric, build resilience, and encourage constructive responses to future national crises," they may overlook a crucial point. Rhetoric has in large measure shaped how we understand terrorism. ('Orange threat level,' anyone?) Religious leaders can actually reframe future events by changing the rhetoric we use to describe terrorism.
First and foremost, religious leaders must dissociate the word "Islam" from the word "terrorism." Muslims are not terrorists, lunatics are - and they nominally come from many of our religious traditions, too. (For more on this, see Eboo Patel's article, "Murderer at Fort Hood.")
Second, religious leaders should stop tying terrorism - and America's response - to God. America needs to protect itself. May God bless America. But using religious or divine language to frame our counterterrorism policies, particularly at a time of war, holds the potential to create inter-religious strife as never before. It also uses God's name in vain.
Third, religious leaders need to use words of healing before bad things happen. For me as a future rabbi, Jeremiah 30:17 comes to mind: "'I will restore you to health, and your wounds I will heal,' declares the Lord." Terrorism is scary. But it is only one of many challenges that we may face as individuals and communities. Preemptive words of healing enable us to understand sad events in our lives, even before they take place.
Fear lacks context. Religious leaders don't. In providing it to others, they can change not only our personal reactions to terrorism but how we as a society respond.