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Responding as Catholic Workers to the Violence at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001

The horrifying events of September 11, 2001, when suicide-mission pilots flew airplanes loaded with passengers into the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and another attempt against the U.S. was foiled by passengers, lead one to ask, after the tears have dried: Why do people hate us so much that they would do something like that? How could they possibly commit such a dreadful, murderous act against innocent people that cries to heaven for vengeance?

How can we respond to such a terrible tragedy? Nothing justifies the violence the terrorists did, yet we should not be surprised if terrorist acts continue. We have to try to make sure this does not happen again. Some can only think of a violent response; they do not see that they have an alternative. It is here we turn to the vision of St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, with its deep roots within the Church-as recommended by Dorothy Day. Both of these women believed in using the weapons of the spirit and the Works of Mercy as an alternative to violence and war.

Our Holy Father, after expressing his profound sorrow for the American people at what he called an “unspeakable horror,” reminded us that we must not give in to the temptation of hatred and violence in the wake of the terrorist attacks, but be committed to the service of justice and peace. Pope John Paul II also said on September 12:

“Yesterday was a dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity. After receiving the news I followed with intense concern the developing situation, with heartfelt prayers to the Lord. How is it possible to commit acts of such cruelty? The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it. Let us beg the Lord that the spiral of hatred and violence will not prevail. May the Blessed Virgin, Mother of Mercy, fill the hearts of all with wise thoughts and peaceful intentions.”

Commentators have been asking on television programs and in newspapers around the United States the question of how such terrorists might have been motivated. Many have noted that this action of terrorists may be their reaction to our military policy in the Gulf War (condemned 56 times by Pope John Paul II), the continued sanctions against Iraq and our continued military presence in the surrounding area, as well as our support of Israel against Palestinians, in spite of the questions of human rights involved.

The targeting of the financial center in New York should also make us reflect on how our economic policies toward the world have contributed to a radicalization of many young people who have become desperate. Believing that peaceful methods cannot be effective against the wealthy nations whose policies, carried out by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, have destroyed local economies in favor of giant corporations, some have turned to deadly violence.

The effect of the tragedy on the world economy may be grave; philosophically the basis of this economy is in question. We cannot continue abandoning the poor of the world under the cover of an economic theory that states that someday far in the future the creation of wealth for the few will help the world. Talk of “defending the American quality of life,” shows how far we are from understanding that our style of life is underwritten by salaries around the world which at best can be called slave wages, while people in so many poor countries are on the edge of starvation. “Free trade” may be free for us, but it is too costly for the poor.

As our nation and the world seek responses to the terrible violence of terrorism, let us remember that all of us have sinned as we have sought the material prosperity of the American dream (and our sins have not just been sexual sins, unlike what Rev. Jerry Falwell has said). We must insist that our policies be changed. Let us not seek to live like the rich man while Lazarus suffers at his door without a drop of clean water for his tongue in this life.

President Bush has stated that the waging of a new war against terrorism “against those who hate freedom” will require a new thought process. We hope he does not mean simply creative violence, but a new thought process which includes a new response from the West. The danger is that with a violent reaction to deadly and horrendous violence we may become like those who perpetrated it. We must also remember that our CIA is well acquainted with the terrorist groups and their training, because of their involvement with and encouragement of them in the past in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the Soviet Union and in other countries. Our participation in the arms trade around the world may have put sophisticated weapons in the hands of nations and groups who are no longer friendly.

Let us not respond with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” Let us remember the spiritual weapons always recommended by Dorothy Day and especially in her writings about St. Therese of Lisieux.

The tragedy is that in the eyes of the world Christianity has become identified with an economics which makes life miserable and almost impossible for much of the world and with a seeking of power which alienates so many. Of course, this economics has nothing to do with Christianity.

As Dorothy said, “If we all carry a little of the burden, it will be lightened. If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction. It evens out. What you do here in New York, in Harrisburg, helps those in China, India, South Africa, Europe and Russia as well as in the oasis where you are. You may think you are alone. But we are members of one another. We are children of God together.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 6, November 2001.