Posted on May 4th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Leadership, Learning, News, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Social Issues
Tagged with 9/11, Barack Obama, Christianity, Humanism, humanist response to bin laden death, Islam, Osama bin Laden, osama bin laden celebration, osama bin laden dead, osama bin laden killed
The attacks on the United States of America orchestrated by Osama bin Laden occurred during my first week of high school -- what was supposed to be the start of my transition into adulthood.
Due to construction on my school, the academic year had been delayed for several weeks. On Sept. 11, 2001, I woke up early, prayed and sat down on the couch to watch the morning news. I turned on the television and was greeted by live footage of the World Trade Center in New York City, a gaping, smoking wound in the side of one of the buildings. The newscasters were calling it a terrible accident, but a feeling in the pit of my empty stomach told me that something unimaginably horrifying was happening.
Then, right before my eyes, a second plane flew into the World Trade Center.
I yelped for my mom, who was getting ready for work, to come downstairs. She thought that the news had replayed footage from the first airplane crash and that I had mistaken it for a new strike, but I assured her of what I had seen.
After being glued to my television for several hours, tears streaming down my face and sweat rolling down my arms, I walked out into my backyard and laid down in the grass. Staring into the sky, afraid to see an airplane pass between the wisps of clouds overhead, I asked God to protect all Americans, but especially the people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. For the first time in years, my mind had shifted away from appealing to God to make me straight instead of gay; my prayer had been a petition for the well being of others instead.
That shift in attitude -- from me-first to an investment in the well being of all -- was reflected across the United States in the weeks following 9/11. I recall watching red, white and blue burn in the Middle East and feeling pride that so many Americans weren't reacting in turn; that we were holding hands instead of smoldering flags.
That pride has dissipated in recent years. Perhaps it was the numerous hateful protests of Park51 last fall or a Muslim charity event this spring. Perhaps it was the whispers that Obama might be a Muslim or that he wasn't born in the United States. Maybe it was the men who shouted "terrorist" out of their car window last year as a Muslim friend and I were drinking coffee and talking about our love lives, reminding me of times others have yelled "fag" at me.
I, and many others like me, grew up under the shadow of 9/11. We had to grow up fast; few of us were prepared for the jarring transition from the idyllic 1990s to living in a time of war. We had to confront the reality that the world was a complex place, where there were problems that couldn't be solved in a 30-minute sitcom. Thinking back to those dark days when our skies were barren still gives me goosebumps; my skin ripples, rising up to meet the air, and my throat catches. There are emotional wounds we still need to tend. But how we tend them matters.
Sunday night, nearly 10 years later, I was preparing to go to bed early for the first time in months when I made the mistake of checking Twitter. I'm no longer a Christian so I do not begin and end each day in prayer like I once did, and it's probably fair to say that Twitter has become a replacement ritual.
And there it was: Osama bin Laden had been located. Osama bin Laden had been captured. Osama bin Laden had been killed.
My Twitter feed erupted with emotions. Cheers, jeers, even tears. But mostly cheers.
I understand the impulse to celebrate such news, but the tenor of some of what I've heard and seen troubles me in the same way I was bothered by those burning American flags in the Middle East nearly 10 years ago. As a Humanist, I struggle to understand the "eye for an eye" mentality. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism: "That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming." Today I worry about what America is becoming.
In times of trouble, I often reflect on the unifying words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that," he wrote. "Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."
I am concerned when I see people celebrating death; when I hear word that thousands of my fellow Bostonians flocked to Boston Commons Sunday night for what was essentially a pep rally. Again, I understand the desire to mark this occasion, but I wish we could muster the same enthusiasm to celebrate the importance of life -- to unite in the face of domestic intolerance, not just that which lurks in evil lairs overseas.
To paraphrase someone I follow on Twitter: "I am grateful that bin Laden is no longer able to do evil, but I don't think we should revel in his death." Or, as it says in my once-favorite book: "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls. Let not your heart be glad" (Proverbs 24:17).
In his announcement Sunday night, President Obama said that the "United States is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam. ... Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims." I am grateful he said it, but I'm concerned that it wasn't fully absorbed. Moments later, I saw a tweet from a Muslim man who's little brother had asked him, "Are they still going to call us terrorist?" I shivered and wondered to myself: Will they?
I'd like to think they won't, but I'm a realist. The next morning, I woke to news that just one day prior to the announcement of bin Laden's death, a turbaned Sikh man had been gunned down in Las Vegas in a possible hate crime. This isn't a rare occurrence; earlier this spring, two elderly Sikh men suffered a similar fate. I also learned that, following the announcement of bin Laden's death, a mosque in Portland, Maine, had been subject to graffiti that declared: "Osama Today, Islam Tomorow" (sic). I spoke with a friend who wears a headscarf and she said: "For the first time since 2001, I thought twice about leaving the house today."
Maybe I find the celebrations troubling because I don't believe that bin Laden's death means that we "won." We'll win when we can prove that his central thesis that there must be a clash of civilizations between the Middle East and the West is wrong; when America's people embody our highest principles of pluralism and tolerance.
I am no longer the kid I was when 9/11 happened. I understand that the peace won't just happen; it must be worked for.
You can find me in the grass again today. Instead of praying, I'll be reflecting on a line out of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass: "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
But I won't be there for long. After a brief respite, I'll rejoin the efforts of many to realize that pluralistic dream. I hope some of the thousands who filled Boston's streets Sunday night might join me.
Chris Stedman is the former Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is also the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, a columnist for the Huffington Post and Washington Post On Faith, and is currently writing a book on religious-nonreligious engagement.