Saturday, September 11

Remembering Adversity

On this day just three years ago, we were all changed by an unspeakable horror. As tens of thousands of us watched on television with a sense of surreal shock, the two towers of the World Trade Center collapsed into flaming chaos, rubble, and dust, and vanished from the skyline of lower Manhattan. Just hours earlier, the most brazen and horrific terrorist attack in human history was carried out when devout Muslim partisans crashed commercial airliners into both of the towers as well as the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A fourth hijacked plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania when the passengers realized what was transpiring and overwhelmed the terrorists. The death toll ultimately rose to nearly three thousand--including scores of police, fire, and rescue workers who ran into the buildings to save those trapped in the infernos that ensued. And thus the nation was suddenly transformed--and unified--by adversity in a way that prosperity never could.

Still, the Questions

It seems that there are far more questions than answers. Despite the fact that our best experts have devoted hundreds of thousands of words, millions of man hours, and billions of dollars to unravel the snarl of mystery that surrounds the current East-West conflict, most of us are as confounded as ever. And our questions only seem to multiply.

Just two weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks were executed, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheik Ekrima Sobri, offered a chillingly prophetic prayer in the Al Aqsa Mosque. The radical Iraqi-backed cleric lifted his eyes heavenward and implored, "Allah, there is no strength but your strength. Destroy, therefore, the Zionist occupation and its helpers and its agents. Destroy the U.S. and its helpers and its agents. Destroy Britain and its helpers and its agents. Prepare those who will soon unite the Muslims of the world and march in the footsteps of Saladin. Allah, we ask you for forgiveness, forgiveness before death, and mercy and forgiveness after death. Allah, grant victory to Islam and the Muslim's in the coming war."

A host of questions immediately spring to mind: what did the supreme spiritual leader of Palestinian Muslims know and when did he know it? What war is he talking about? Why would he invoke such virulent hatred against the Western world? Why would he pronounce such fierce anathemas against the nations most responsible for brokering peace between his own people and the Israelis? Why would he reserve such impious enmity for the powers which had insured the transformation of Yasser Arafat from a rogue terrorist operative into a respected nationalist leader and his Palestinian Liberation Organization from a disreputable revolutionary cell into a legitimate regional government? Why would he so openly attack his land's chief financial and political patrons? In short, how did we become the enemy in his unholy Ji'had?

And there are still more questions.

The four commercial airliners which were hijacked early in the morning of September 11, 2001 were transformed into weapons of mass destruction by a handful of men willing to lay down their lives as martyrs for their faith. America, indeed, most of the Western world, was utterly shocked. But why? Were we not given abundant warning that such unimaginably ignoble deeds might actually be forthcoming? What did we learn from the appalling suicide bombings which had rocked Israel week after week during the previous year, or the suicide attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in a Yemen harbor in October 2000, or the suicide bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, or the suicide attack on U.S. Army barracks, the Saudi Khobar Towers, in 1996? Why were we so surprised? More, why were the military, security, and intelligence communities so surprised?

Even that does not exhaust our questions.

Saudi exile Osama bin Laden has been the locus of international terrorism for more than a decade. His network of confederated revolutionary cells, Al Qaeda was established in 1988 and funded by his family's vast and diverse fortune. In the years since, Al Qaeda has repeatedly struck U.S. and Israeli targets and have destabilized moderate regimes the world over. In 1990, they assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane in a midtown Manhattan hotel. In 1992, they bombed American troops stationed in Yemen during the Gulf War demobilization. In 1993, they shot down U.S. helicopters over Somalia. A month later, they set off a massive explosion in the underground garage of the World Trade Center in New York. In 1994, they unleashed a wave of terror against India in Kashmir and genocide against Copts in Egypt. In 1995, they deployed terrorist cells in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia where assassinations, insurrections, and kidnappings became a regular occurrence. In 1996, they not only attacked U.S. military housing facilities in Dhaharan, they launched radical new revolutionary movements in Chechnya, East Timor, Chad, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Algeria. In 1998, they issued a fatwah in conjunction with other notorious terrorist organizations such as the Egyptian Al Gama'a Al Islam, the Palestinian Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Pakistani Jamaat'I Islam, and the Yemeni Al Ji'had. The spiritual decree asserted the “duty of all Muslims to kill U.S. citizens, civilian and military, and their allies everywhere.” Though the Clinton administration targeted Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and Sudan with surgical military strikes and place Osama on the FBI's “most wanted” list, little was actually done to stymie their efforts in London, Paris, Hamburg, and indeed, in schools, communities, and airports all across the U.S. How is this possible? How can an organization with such a sordid past be free to continue to pursue their pernicious goals?

There are yet more questions.

A decade ago three different countries in the strife-riven Middle East were invaded by neighboring nations within a matter of a few weeks. Their governments were displaced, their people were dispossessed, and their resources were dissipated. When Syria overran Lebanon, the world barely noticed. When Libya led a coup in Chad, the incident was almost entirely overlooked. But when Iraq swept into Kuwait, an international crisis-and ultimately the Gulf War-was provoked. Why? What made the difference? Iraq's antics in the region were not exactly unprecedented. The conflict between Kuwait and Iraq has flared up again and again over the past thirty years, resulting in armed confrontation on at least five occasions. In 1961 and again in 1973, Iraq actually annexed portions of its tiny gulf neighbor. Why, then, was the intelligence community in the United States so surprised when the old rivalry resurfaced in 1990? And, why the dramatic reaction?

Still more questions arise.

Throughout 2001, world attention was focused on the newly reinvigorated Palestinian resistance movement, or Intifada, in Israel's occupied West Bank and Gaza territories. Contrasting images of the Jewish victims of terror attacks on pizza parlors and of the Palestinian victims of Israeli retaliation have been etched in the minds of television viewers around the globe. Meanwhile, innumerable other Islamic Intifadas across the region are virtually ignored-the Intifada of the Kurds in Iraq, the Intifada of the Shi'ites in Tajukskaya, the Intifada of the Albanian Muslims in Kossovo, the Intifada of the Druze in Lebanon, the Intifada of the Azaria in Azarbidjan, the Intifada of the Sunnu in Kashmir, and the Intifada of the Dra'hanna in Sudan. Why is one uprising front page news, when all the others constitute no news at all?

Even now, our questions continue to present themselves.

In Iran, the home of Islamic fundamentalism, the excavation and restoration of the ancient ruins of pagan Persia have become a national priority. Likewise, in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, and Egypt--each a very strict Muslim state--the artifacts and achievements of their pre-Muslim forbears have become rallying points for both national patriotism and pan-Arab pride. Why this apparent lapse of piety and consistency?

The slippery, difficult, and discomfiting questions just keep coming. Like the conflict that engendered them, there seems to be no end to them.

So, where can we turn for answers?

By now it is fairly clear that the answers will not be found in State Department dossiers. Neither will they will be disclosed in classified Pentagon reports. They are not likely to be revealed in official press briefings. And they certainly will not be related in the dispatches of the popular media.

Perhaps the best place to start looking for answers is not tomorrow's newspaper, but yesterday's history books. It may well be that insights into a whole host of the plaguing dilemmas of both the present and of the foreseeable future, may be discerned best as we carefully study the events of the past. Indeed, the elusive answers to our thorniest questions may only begin to be divulged as we familiarize ourselves with when, where, how, and why those questions arose in the first place. Perhaps we are beginning to learn that the most progressive vision of the future begins with an insightful perspective of the past.

Preparing the Way

Over the course of several years now, President Bush has developed a vibrant devotional life. Every morning before dawn, even before he brings Laura a cup of coffee, he reads from the Bible. Not surprisingly, he finds the Book of Psalms particularly invigorating. That poetic section in the heart of the Old Testament articulates the battles and the rewards of faith, the triumphs and the struggles of hope, the joys and the sorrows of love. He is particularly taken with the stunning power of passages like Psalms 27 and 91--passages that resonate with themes of moral steadfastness in the face of conflict.

He also regularly reads the daily selection from My Utmost for His Highest, the classic devotional work by Oswald Chambers. The book was written in the Middle East during the most difficult days of the First World War. Published posthumously in 1923, it has remained continually in print ever since. With millions of copies in more than two dozen languages, it has become one of the bestselling inspirational books of all time--a classic on a par with Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and Gerhard Groote and Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.

Chambers was born in Scotland in 1874--in the same year G.K. Chesterton and Winston Churchill were born. His father was a Baptist pastor, converted and trained under the ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, arguably the most influential English Christian of the nineteenth century. His mother was converted under the ministry of Thomas Chalmers, who was likewise the most influential Scottish Christian of the age. This rich spiritual legacy was evident in the writing and teaching of Chambers. The resulting humble simplicity, deep piety, and passionate vision ultimately encouraged Christians to live their lives as “broken bread and poured out wine” for Christ, to “give their utmost for His highest.”

A daily dose of Chambers is no little thing. His stirring call for personal sacrifice, moral clarity, and repentance is obvious on nearly every page. It is hardly a wonder that under such a steady hand, Bush's faith continued to deepen and mature.

When President Bush was interrupted during a visit to a Sarasota, Florida elementary school with the news that a plane had struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001, he had already been providentially prepared for the Herculean task of leadership that would follow.

Earlier that morning, the selection from My Utmost for His Highest, had led him to a very telling passage--how telling, he would have had no way of knowing at the time. Based on the model of servant-leadership from the Gospel of John, the short reading portended and portrayed the path the president would have to take in the difficult days ahead: “Ministering as opportunity surrounds us does not mean selecting our surroundings, it means being very selectly God's in any haphazard surroundings which He engineers for us. The characteristics we manifest in our immediate surroundings are indications of what we will be like in other surroundings.”

The president would indeed soon find himself in haphazard surroundings. The passage continued even more dramatically: “Towels and dishes and sandals, all the ordinary sordid things of our lives, reveal more quickly than anything what we are made of. It takes God Almighty Incarnate in us to do the meanest duty as it ought to be done.” And finally: “We have to go the 'second mile' with God. Some of us get played out in the first ten yards, because God compels us to go where we cannot see the way, and we say, 'I will wait till I get nearer the big crisis.' If we do not do the running steadily in the little ways, we shall do nothing in the crisis.”

It is a great comfort to know that regardless of how magnificent or mundane our path may be in the days ahead, God is even now preparing the way for us--even as He prepared the way of the president.

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