In the midst of a university conference on US Foreign Policy and International Relations, I got three cell phone calls dolling out the news: First, the World Trade Tower had been hit by a plane. Then, the second tower, too, had been struck. Finally, the country might be under attack. I rushed to inform the organizers only to discover that the moderator knew the situation but had decided "not to interrupt the speakers." We'd "wait for the break," he said, "rather than disrupt the program."
I don't know what shocked me more: the audacity of someone using two of our own planes to set up a conflagration seen round the world. Or the irony of the indifference to the international implications of the situation by a man who was teaching the subject.
Later, I chalked up that incident as an icon of our continuing national 'indifference' to the rest of the world. That must, I thought, surely be one of the reasons we never saw an attack coming.
But now the problem had come home with a vengeance. Not from another country but at the hands of a small, mixed group of Muslims who had decided to split the world in two.
I had been working with Muslim Imams and scholars for years. These were good holy people whose world view we were only now discovering. But I also knew that "Muslim" meant little more than some dim specter of the Crusades to most Americans or, at best, their expulsion from Spain. Both of which were very Catholic things. Deep down, this would not be identified as a national issue. This could become a great deal more serious than that. This had all the signs of becoming a major religious problem in a pluralistic world.
My own Benedictine community moved immediately to reach out to Muslim families in the area, to accompany Muslim women shopping, for instance, to open the monastery doors to their own needs, to call and check and comfort and pray publicly for people who now feared for their own safety in even so mild a place as Erie, Pennsylvania.
The Global Peace Initiative of Women, of which I was co-chair, moved just as quickly to cement our Muslim relationships: to work with women from Iraq, Syria and Palestine; to engage the activists and contemplatives of all the communities in our interfaith network for peace and justice with renewed energy. We allowed neither time, nor space to harden the natural distance between us. We would not choose sides. We would continue simply to be a very public witness and single face of the equal love of the God of Differences for us all.
Those simple gestures spanned all our dialogues. Those kinds of things everywhere, I think, stopped our small worlds from tipping over and breaking apart. They brought love and reason to the danger of knee-jerk fanaticism.
But we still have a great deal to do.
First, oddly enough, egalitarian USA does not deal with differences easily. Having worn the medieval habit once characteristic of Catholic nuns, I remember the catcalls, the frowns, the exclusion and distancing that came with it outside the Catholic community. It will take ongoing effort to see that those differences are not allowed to separate Muslims from other Americans now.
Second, what we do not understand, we are likely to fear. We need as much understanding of Islam as we can get. We need more study of world religions in our schools and more respect for different religious creeds, customs and practices even in our churches where rejection of the other is too easily bred in the name of faith.
Third, we must begin to be as concerned about the agendas of the rest of the world as we are of our own. If we have learned anything in the debate about the national debt ceiling, it must surely be that we are all in this together. What affects them will also, eventually, affect us. Indifference can no longer be an American virtue.
As the story of the Tower of Babel teaches us, God intends that we learn from one another. Let us begin.
This post is part of a collection of interfaith reflections on 9/11 and the decade that followed.