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Five Years On, What Have We Learned?

It’s a truism to say that everyone remembers where they were on September 11 five years ago. This editor was at a hospital chaplains’ conference. The schedule collapsed along with the Twin Towers. We clustered around the TV set, appalled by what we saw.

I doubt any of us had any real conception of what would ensue from the events of that day. We knew America would respond fiercely, though there seemed no obvious target for her. Perhaps the masterminds behind the attack would be caught, but the perpetrators themselves had died with their victims. Nevertheless, someone would pay.

What we did not foresee was how the passage of time, the accumulation of atrocities, and decisions made by powerful men and women the world over would change our perceptions of the world.

At the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of its senior diplomats, Georgi Arbatov, said, “We will do a terrible thing to you; we will deprive you of an enemy.” But the clear and definable threat from the USSR was replaced almost immediately by another, which very few had foreseen: a nebulous, far-flung and deadly conspiracy, with just enough visibility about it–its adherents had brown skins–to provide a focus for our fears.

That there are grounds for these fears is undeniable. Any government which neglected to prevent further attacks would be failing in its first duty, which is to defend its people. However, five years after 9/11, we are asking serious questions about how far the measures taken to defend us against attack are fueling further attacks, and–more alarming because far more insidious–creating a culture in which such atrocities are more likely to happen.

The danger of prophecies becoming self-fulfilling is very well known. The problem with President Bush’s War on Terror–good Christian West against bad Muslim Middle East–is that it has created a narrative which is both coherent and comprehensible, and therefore plausible. That does not make it true, but the actions of those who believe in it might make it true.

Along with serious consequences for global peace, as very eminent commentators have pointed out, have come serious consequences for Christian and democratic values. A former Baptist Union of Great Britain president, Roy Jenkins, argues in a new book, Break a Body, Save a Soul, that international agreements prohibiting torture are being undermined by the War on Terror.

“Christians are not always the good guys, those on the receiving end of torture,” he says. “Christian believers practice torture, order torture, collude in torture, condone torture, justify torture, remain willfully blind to the use of torture.”

In another book, just released in the U.K. ,Faith and Freedom, former U.S. president and Baptist lay preacher Jimmy Carter reflects on what has happened in his own country since 9/11.

Referring to the advances in human rights policy under his own administration and subsequently, he says: “During the past four years there have been dramatic changes in our nation’s policies toward protecting these rights. Many of our citizens have accepted these unprecedented policies because of the fear of terrorist attacks, but the damage to America’s reputation has been extensive.

“Formerly admired almost universally as the pre-eminent champion of human rights, the United States now has become one of the foremost targets of respected international organizations concerned about these basic principles of democratic life.”

Anyone who imagines that there are easy answers to the problem–or problems–of terrorism is naïve. Things have gone beyond the point at which all violence could be avoided by an appeal to reason or the better natures of men with guns and bombs. But this erosion of values will not, in the long term, help anyone. It will sow the dragons’ teeth of more and worse conflict to come, and it must be resisted.

We may let Mr. Jenkins have the last word, as he calls on Christians to make their voices heard. “It is a scandal which must be faced, for the sake of those who suffer, certainly; but also for the well-being of whole societies and for the soul of the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Mark Woods is editor of the Baptist Times. This column appeared as an editorial in the paper’s Sept. 6 online issue.