I was living just outside New York City when the Twin Towers came down. As I tried to come to grips with the enormity of the tragedy, I received a call that two members of my congregation, a father and son who worked in the towers, had not been heard from. I rushed to the house. Soon the truth was clear: the father had survived; the son, only recently married, had not. What could one say?
It was with some relief that I heard President Bush speak in measured tones as he reacted publicly to the tragedies in New York, Washington, and Shanksville. He seemed to be warning America not to overreact, not to cast a wide net of blame. These were moments of sorrow, but also moments when America could come together and demonstrate the humanistic values that we share with good people everywhere.
Sadly, over time, in many places anger and fear have overtaken common good sense. Invoking a troubled past, the President spoke of a “crusade,” which to Muslims meant nothing less than an attack on their civilization. Then the War on Terror became a war on Iraq, further inflaming Muslim passions.
Meanwhile, in America, Muslims came increasingly under attack. Assaults on Sikhs only proved how ignorant some of us are about those who are neither Christians nor Jews. Acts of hatred multiplied, including opposition to the establishment of mosques and Congressional hearings of questionable value. In many places, interfaith dialogue ground to a halt.
For many Americans, fear has taken hold. The events of 9/11 unnerved Americans greatly, unleashing a paranoia that manifests itself in fears of anything that strikes some of us as not normative and causing many of us to “circle the wagons” so that we can keep all the resources we have to ourselves. His own party thwarted President Bush’s efforts for immigration reform, and anti-immigrant fervor today rivals that of the Post-World War I era.
Meanwhile the rich want to get richer, to the detriment of the middle class and poor – as if life as they know it is about to end, and they have to gather up all the scraps they can.
Congress seems to care not a whit about Americans who are out-of-work. Attacks on environmental science are multiplying – as if the end is so near we need not worry about hastening it ourselves.
Osama bin Laden is dead, and his organization has proven relatively impotent. And yet many Americans persist in handing him a posthumous victory by destroying the human fabric of the society he was unable to rend asunder.
But good people, of course, abound, and so there is hope. The family who lost a son started a camp scholarship in his memory. Many of us prefer to create moments of hope out of the depths of despair and fear. I recently found this reading, anonymously presented, that think can serve as an expression of hope we can all share:
I am afraid of nearly everything:
But most of all, I am afraid of what I might become:
reconciled to injustice,
resigned to fear and despair,
lulled into a life of apathy.
Unchain my hope, make me strong.
Stretch me towards the impossible, that I may work for what ought to be: the hungry fed,
the enslaved freed,
the suffering comforted,
the peace accomplished.
Rabbi George Stern is executive director of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement