Volume 15 Number 2
Unexpected Fruits of Tragedy
01 April 2002

Public awareness of the prominence of government in American life has heightened as the role of government has inevitably soared. If this means wider voter participation in the congressional elections in November, it will reverse an unfortunate trend.

On another front, marriages are up. Many couples who 'partnered' decided to wed. Membership of many churches has risen. An Episcopal church choir in Richmond, Virginia, added seven members in recent months. A longtime member of the choir attributes this to the events of 11 September.

Non-Muslims, meanwhile, want to know more about Islam. Newspaper and broadcast commentaries from Muslim authorities try to explain. Sales of the Qur'an are up. Many non-Muslims as well as Muslims are taking a fresh look at their faith. A recent exhibit at the National Press Club by the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, which focused on the wide variety of religious life, doubtless attracted more interest as result of 11 September. There are early signs that a spiritual awakening may be stirring.

An imam spoke in a Roman Catholic church in the Washington, DC area, and hundreds came to hear him. Muslim speakers are in demand for panel discussions. But while there's a clear hunger among millions of Americans to understand the religion whose fringe elements flew the planes that fateful day, few blame Islam for what happened. They realize that through history other religions, too, have had those who distorted their message.

Americans are reaching out in many different ways to the Afghan people. For example, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has asked Methodists to prepare school kits for Afghan children.

One common denominator is the grief felt by those who lost loved ones on 11 September and in Afghanistan. A poignant meeting took place in mid-January in Kabul between four American relatives of 11 September victims with families of Afghan dead. Imagine what it was like for Californian music professor Derrill Bodley, who had lost his 20-year-old daughter. According to The Guardian newspaper in London, he was there 'to meet the father of a five-year-old girl who died when a stray US bomb landed on a residential area in Kabul'. They were brought together by Global Exchange, an NGO which, The Guardian said, 'hopes to promote reconciliation between people from the two countries'. The report quoted a Global Exchange spokesman as telling the BBC: 'The Afghans will see that the American citizens are not indifferent to their plight, and the Americans will get a better understanding of the tragedy of the Afghan people.'

The 11 September aftermath has also helped Americans understand how their foreign policies foment hatred in much of the Arab world. A French journalist who visited Lebanon recently told me he was struck by the anti-American feeling there. Clearly that feeling needs to be taken into account.

'We need to see ourselves as others see us,' says a Christian mother in suburban Washington. An African-American journalist cites similarities between the hopelessness felt by impoverished youths in US cities and that of their Arab counterparts abroad.

Until 11 September most Americans, including federal lawmakers, paid scant attention to foreign policy. But that's changed. Americans are more attentive to the world at large, hungrier for international news. So presumably are their Congressmen. If that concern continues, changes may come in how America relates to the world.

This country, so blessed materially, may become more sensitive to the needs and attitudes of others. We may project more the vision of Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address as the American Civil War was ending in 1865: 'With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds... and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.'

Robert Webb is a former columnist and editorial writer for the 'Cincinnati Enquirer'. He lives in Alexandria, Va, USA.
Robert Webb