Mixed feelings and tarnished ideals

By Lowell Grisham

I stayed up late Sunday night watching the news after hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden. And I slept a little longer yesterday morning when after the alarm went off.

I found myself having somewhat mixed feelings on Sunday. It does not feel right to rejoice when another human being is killed. And yet, I had a sense of relief and thanks that a person who had perpetrated so much evil and violence was no longer alive.

It was good intelligence and basic investigative work that uncovered bin Laden after ten years. And some sophisticated special ops work that finished him in the middle of a suburban neighborhood without harming nearby innocents.

It has always seemed to me that we erred by using war metaphors in reaction to the attacks of 9-11. In doing so, we inappropriately ennobled bin Laden and his group as if they were a real army from a real nation with real warriors. I thought we should have used the metaphor of organized crime. Al Qaeda seems more like a drug cartel or like the Ku Klux Klan than an army. Had we framed the attack in terms of organized crime, we might have focused more on effective methods of counter-terrorism — essentially police actions: good intelligence and infiltration of the group — rather than creating wars.

How much damage we have done by launching wars, with their inevitable harm and death to non-combatants, rather than using our superior resources to combat a small, clandestine violent criminal conspiracy? What if we had responded to the 9-11 attacks by inspiring our highest American ideals and character rather than our reactive, violent nature?

On the day after 9-11, the whole world was with us. They looked to us with sympathy and with empathy. We were to set the agenda for an international response to terrorism. What if we had used the moral weight that we held at that time to do things constructive, things that come from the best of the American spirit? What if we had used our unequaled influence at that moment to broker a fair and lasting peace settlement between Israel and Palestine? What if we had used that moment to launch an international relief effort to combat poverty and misery in places that sometimes breed the helplessness that leads to violence and terrorism? What if we had chosen a law-enforcement metaphor rather than war? We could have stood for the values of the rule of law, and focused the whole world on solving our shared problems, rather than our creating more problems and launching a decade of war.

I think we were poorly led in those days following 9-11, and we did not follow our highest American values and traditions. Instead of being noble, strong and just, we became fearful and violent. The whole world has suffered.

The story we had yesterday from the beginning of the book of Daniel is a fine story about the power that is present when we follow our highest ideals and maintain our identity and values in times of challenge and stress. It is the story of four young Jewish men who have been carried off in a mass deportation to Babylon. Their captors decide to train the young men, along with captives from other nations, to compete to become elite servants in the royal court.

All of the trainees are to be given royal rations of food and wine. But the assigned food is not kosher. The four Jewish men ask their trainer to allow them to maintain their dietary traditions, here represented as vegetables to eat and water to drink. As long as the men can show they can compete with the others, the trainer allows them to observe kosher. At the end of the testing time, no one was found to be healthier and wiser than the four Jewish men.

We betray our highest identity and values at great peril. It is usually a crisis, a great threat, that tempts us to be less than we are. But crisis is also the time of trial that forges our strongest character. As Americans, we need to remember that we are a strong and peaceful people. We value freedom and opportunity; we are compassionate; we are creative and hopeful, we are unafraid; we watch out for the little guy, for those who are weak or threatened; we embrace the equality of human beings and the rule of just laws. When we live out of our highest values, we bring much goodness to ourselves and to the planet.

May this next decade be a time of rebuilding, renewal and healing, consistent with the best values of our nation and of all humanity.

The Rev. Lowell Grisham is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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