The Real Lesson Of September 11

On the Sunday after September 11, 2001, while we were all still reeling from the aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks in world history, millions of Americans filed into church to hear some comforting and encouraging words, and perhaps, to be reassured that God was still looking out for us. That Sunday, the pastor at my church gave a very meaningful sermon about strength of character, courage and perseverance in difficult times.

It was, in many ways, what you would expect to hear in a sermon just days after the worst national tragedy in decades. He quoted Abraham Lincoln and other historic leaders who’ve had to deal with tumultuous times and tragic events.

But after the words of encouragement and comfort, his sermon went in a different direction. He stressed something that nobody seemed to want to hear just days after the most vicious act of mass murder ever committed in our country. He spoke about exercising restraint.

He didn’t suggest that we shouldn’t punish the people who attacked us and I don’t think he even said we should forgive them. In fact, quite the opposite. His point seemed to be summarize by this one sentence from his sermon:

“We have every right, and indeed an obligation, to fight evil; but in fighting evil, we must not let ourselves become evil.”

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In hindsight, I think it was incredibly prescient of him to focus on this – as if he could see what was going to happen in response to this attack.

In the ten years since 9/11, I’ve thought about that sermon many times. Immediately after 9/11, our government detained Muslim Americans for long periods of time for questioning, without access to a lawyer. Later, the horror of 9/11 was used as a reason to go to war with a country that our president admitted had nothing to do with 9/11. Eventually it was revealed that our government authorized the torture of detainees, many of whom were harassed, tortured, raped, and apparently killed by Americans at the Abu Graib prison in Iraq.


I thought about that sermon when Congress passed a law making it legal to detain anyone indefinitely, even an American citizen, without access to a lawyer or due process of law, as long as the president declares them to be a suspected terrorist; and again when our government violated the Constitution by authorizing warrantless wiretaps on American citizens.

As a patriotic American who was outraged by the 9/11 attacks, I want to believe that we are very different from the people who attacked us. That we have higher ethics, higher principles, even a higher morality than they do.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the American people wanted action. We were traumatized and we were easily manipulated. We saw horrific violence and death on our home soil on a scale most of us never imagined and we wanted someone to pay. In that atmosphere it was easy to satisfy our collective blood-lust by attacking someone, anyone, who we didn’t like in that part of the world. We weren’t too picky. So it was easy to redirect our collective anger and outrage against people who did not attack us. And it was easy for our political leaders to exploit the tragedy of 9/11 for their own political goals.

But true leadership would have required some measure of self restraint. This would have allowed us to show the world that we truly are better than the people who attacked us, that we could never be made to stoop to their level. We could have lived up to our principles and demonstrated that we believe in justice, not revenge; that we punish the perpetrators of a crime, not just people who look or act or worship the same as those criminals.

Unfortunately, our leaders saw our national trauma as a weakness that they could exploit and they used it to their own benefit and to our detriment. As a result, we’ve seen far more Americans die in an unnecessary war than we lost on 9/11. We’ve seen an increase in worldwide terrorism, at least 2 trillion dollars added to our national debt, and thousands, perhaps millions of Muslims throughout the world radicalized by their hatred for us

But I believe we could have avoided a great deal of pain and heartache, our standing in the world would be much higher, our national debt would be much smaller and thousands of dead Americans (not to mention hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis) would still be alive, if our elected leaders had exercised some self restraint and lived up to the principles they claim to hold.

I believe the true legacy of 9/11 can be summed up with these words:

“We have every right, and indeed an obligation, to fight evil; but in fighting evil, we must not let ourselves become evil.”