The morning after the 9/11 attacks, I was driving to work and listening to the radio. The commentator was talking about how everything had changed in America. With hyperbolic language, he went on and on saying we will never be the same, and how awful it is.
As he was speaking, I looked out my car window and saw a mother in conversation as she walked her child to school. In one hand she had a sack. Every few steps she bent over and picked up a piece of litter along the roadside, putting it into her sack as she and her child continued talking together on the way to school. Something deep inside of me said, "This woman is more real than that radio commentator."
That Sunday I preached to a wounded and grieving congregation. I reminded them of who we are. "We are a compassionate people. Do not let the wicked turn you into less than you are; turn you into something you are not. In the aftermath of this attack, the real battleground for us is in our hearts. We must not let them triumph inside of us by surrendering our compassion, our love, and our peace. Beware of trying to slay the dragon, lest you become the dragon."
Around the world on Sept. 11, sympathetic people took to the streets to express their empathy and solidarity with the American people, not just in London and Paris, but also in Moscow and Tehran. Our press reported disproportionately about the few, small demonstrations of joy.
At that moment in history, the whole world waited willingly to follow America's lead. America had a unique opportunity to seize the moment and to define the event. A sympathetic world waited to respond with us.
As if by design, a vision and blueprint was ready for this opportunity. Just 12 months earlier, September 2000, 189 member states of the United Nations had adopted the Millennium Development Goals. For the first time in human history we had the resources and technology to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, reduce child mortality, combat disease, achieve universal primary education, ensure environmental sustainability and develop global partnerships for development.
What if our nation's response to the attacks of 9/11 had been to lead the globe in embracing those goals? The world would have followed our lead. We could have reduced the circumstances of poverty and helplessness that tend to breed terrorism. We've done this before. From the ashes of World War II came the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. Former enemies Germany and Italy are now close friends.
What if we had used our moral weight after 9/11 to empower the moderate voices of Islam? Or to broker a just settlement between Israel and Palestine? The world waited for us to lead a response.
We chose wrong. "The War on Terror" was the wrong action and the wrong metaphor. Using the word "war" gave a false stature to the actions of al-Qaida. It dignified their activity as though they were warriors or a great army. It limited our imagination to warlike responses. When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.
Osama bin Laden was a criminal, not a warrior. Al-Qaida was a small, criminal organization. We know how to deal with organized crime. The FBI infiltrated the Mafia and the KKK in their day and brought them to justice. We know how to use informers and intelligence to get inside criminal organizations. That's how we killed bin Laden. We developed information and sent a police-style military team into his headquarters. We didn't invade Pakistan.
Violence begets violence. Two wars in Iraq birthed ISIS and empowered Iran. The Afghan war left a mess. We have been false to our own values: authorizing torture, kidnapping combatants' wives, bombing villages, imprisoning indefinitely without process and wiretapping Americans without warrants.
Twenty years ago the brave passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 protected the U.S. Capitol from attack. Last January, American terrorists successfully invaded the same target. Today, our nation's greatest domestic terrorist threat, according to the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, is from white supremacists.
Beware of trying to slay the dragon, lest you become the dragon.
It's time to reclaim our American character as a people of compassion, love and peace.
What do we do next? We go to school and talk with each other and pick up the litter from the side of the road. And we love our neighbor as ourselves.