My office is located in one of the most beautiful office parks (an oxymoron if ever there was one) that I’ve ever seen. Lots of green grass and trees. Two lakes at the edge; just beyond, a river. Not much traffic: the lay of the land is such that it hides the nearby expressway. Only now that the last leaves have fallen can I look out and see other buildings and an apartment complex. Nothing hints that this is located in a busy city of over a million people. It is a good thing to have beauty so readily at hand during the day. It makes it a tranquil place to pass the time, if one needs to be at work in an office building that is.
Sometimes, though, in the course of business, I need to be at my employer’s other offices. Unlike my regular work location, there aren’t any nearby trees or greenspaces to camouflage the city. Like my office, there is water nearby: the building sits adjacent to the bank of a river. And, though in a much different way, one can look out the window and see a breathtaking landscape, it isn’t the same. When I sit in the ‘guest’ office, I look at a marvel of an urban cityscape. I have always looked in awe at the skylines of the great American cities — Chicago, San Francisco, and the daddy of the them all: New York. But, I can’t look out that window, gazing across the river at what is there without seeing what isn’t there. You see, the river is the Hudson, and the office is directly across from lower Manhattan.
I’ve been to New York a few times since 9/11 and have stood in silence at the WTC site, trying to re-imagine the space as it had been. I last saw the towers about a month before the attacks, while staring out the window at Newark International, waiting to catch a plane. On 9/10, I saw a photo taken of my son a few months earlier, sitting in the same airport, the towers in the distance rising above the planes on the tarmac and the river and the other buildings. He is looking the other way, the photo’s background one that should have remained inconsequential, just a part of the steel and glass skyline, not something that was a symbol of anything, not something that would, beginning the next day, forever dominate that snapshot. They were just buildings, impersonal concrete, no thought given to the commerce that occurred there, the people who worked and would die there. It wasn’t until this fall, five years later, that I had looked at the Manhattan skyline from the New Jersey shore. My mind’s eye kept trying to fill in where the towers had stood.
Shortly after that last trip to NJ, I was browsing at the library at church. Perhaps I unconsciously thought about the scenery that I had looked at for the preceding week as I looked for something to read. Maybe that is why I picked up Rowan Williams slim volume Writing in the Dust: After 9/11.
Rowan Williams, now the Archbishop of Cantebury, was two blocks away from WTC attending a meeting when the planes hit. This book, written in the weeks immediately after the attacks, is his reflection on the meaning of that day and what he suggests should have been the appropriate response to the events of 9/11. The title, as Williams writes in the epilogue, refers not only to the dense dust he was surrounded by after the buildings collapsed, but also to the temporary nature of his reflections. “This isn’t a theology or a programme for action”, Williams writes, “but one person’s attempt to find words for the grief and shock and loss of one moment. …[I] hope only that they may help to take forward someone else’s mourning. “.
What strikes me though, having read the book twice through in one sitting, is that these words should not be temporary; or at least, they are not ready for dissolution yet. They are as relevant today, while we are embroiled in the war in Iraq with no easy or clear-cut way out of the mess we have made, as it was in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on WTC and the Pentagon.
Williams first writes of the nightmare of being in the area of the attacks, of escaping only to feel the rumble of the second tower collapsing, and breathing in the thick debris-filled air. He writes of a void, “the emptiness and anaesthesia”, in the midst of terror and death, but how we shouldn’t be eager to fill that void too quickly, with easy answers. He writes of the perversion that would make someone do such an incomprehensible act, how it couldn’t be in the name of religion despite the terrorists’ claims. He warns of what he calls the “great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda”. He contrasts the truly heroic actions of the responders, working for the secular goal of community health and safety, with the wrongly self-proclaimed heroism of the religious zealots who hijacked the planes. And, in his first chapter, Williams calls for a ‘breathing space’ to consider what happened and how we should respond.
It is this idea of a breathing space that Williams returns to throughout his reflection, encouraging a breathing space to understand what happened and to know an appropriate response to and punishment for such unspeakable violence. We need breathing space to know how to move forward and prevent such angry violence from happening again. We need breathing space to speak of, and maybe to redefine, our belief in God. That is what he wrote at the end of 2001; I don’t know if he was right, but I do believe that if our country had done what Williams suggested, we might not be in the current situation in Iraq.
At the time Williams was writing this, America had just begun the campaign in Afghanistan. Williams writes of the decision to go to war, questioning whether it was an act of ‘just war’:
A good deal of the moral capital accumulated during the first days and weeks has been squandered. From a situation where Muslim nations, even Iran, expressed shock and sympathy, we have come to a point where the shapelessness of the campaign leads Muslims to ask whether there is any agenda other than the humiliation of an Islamic population. We may think this an outrageously wrong perception, but it becomes — or should become — a rather urgent factor in calculating how to restore a sense of lawfulness that would sustain some coherent action to punish and to secure a future that will be more settled and just for everyone.
But terrorism is not a place, not even a person or a group of persons; it is a form of behaviour. ‘War’ against terrorism is as much a metaphor as war against drug abuse. It can only mean a sustained policy of making such behaviour less attractive or tolerable. As we’ve been reminded often, this is a long job; but there is a difference between saying this, which is unquestionably true, and suggesting that there is a case for an open-ended military campaign. (p. 37).
We could ask whether the further destabilising of a massively resentful Muslim world and the intensifying of the problems of homelessness and hunger in an already devastated country were really unavoidable. We could refuse to be victims, striking back without imagination.
The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment. (p46-47).
By attacking a country that was not the attacker, Williams reasons, we have only deepened the gulf of misunderstanding between the West and the Arab world:
Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game. However much we protest that this is a caricature, this is how it is experienced. And we have to begin to understand how such a perception is part of the price we pay for the benefits of globalisation. (p. 55)
So, there is a particularly difficult challenge here, to do with making terms with our vulnerability and learning how to live with it in a way that isn’t simple denial, panic, the reinforcement of defenses.( p 57).
The most important point, though, in Williams brief book (at approx 70 pages, it’s really a long essay), is that it is important to understand the misuse of symbols. Symbols, Williams writes, can be manipulated, and abused to the point where it is the symbol one supports, rather than the reality behind it. Just as the twin towers became, for al-Qaida, a twisted symbol of Western greed and gluttony, the towers or the terrorists can be a symbol of our fear, and hatred of others we do not understand, veiled behind the symbol of an outrageous act.
‘Using other people to think with’; that is, using them as symbols for points on your map, values in your scheme of things. When you get used to imposing meanings in this way, you silence the stranger’s account of who they are; and that can mean both metaphorical and literal death. Death as the undermining of a culture, language, or faith, and, at the extreme, the death of tyranny and genocide. …The collective imagination needs the outsider to give itself definition — which commonly means that it needs somewhere to project its own fears and tensions.
Living realities are turned in to symbols, and the symbolic values are used to impression the reality. At its extreme pitch, people simple relate to the symbols. It is too hard to look past them, to look into the complex humanity of a real other. (p. 64-65).
It’s tough to think of the WTC towers as a bad symbol, but that isn’t what Williams was suggesting, and I don’t mean it either. Rather, Williams means that anything, when reduced to a symbol can be negative, representing only the distillation of our own misinformed interpretation. It’s like the flag: it can be a symbol of patriotism, of loyalty to one’s country. But, it can also represent the bullheaded idea of ‘my country as I see it, my country right or wrong, my country as my agenda’. Here is where we get caught in symbols and they begin to define us, rather than the other way around.
So, is a bad thing that I look at the skyline of Lower Manhattan and re-image the outline of the towers? No…as long as I hold that symbol as something to make me think about what happened, and not just how I might have reacted to it initially. It is the moral and spiritual thing to do; the right thing. To quote Williams again:
What use is faith to us if it is only a transcription into mythological jargon of the mechanisms of that inhuman grief that grasps its own suffering to itself as a ground of justification and encloses the suffering of others in interpretations that hold it at a safe distance?
And Christian faith? Can we think about our focal symbol, the cross of Jesus, and try to rescue it from its frequent fate as the banner of our own wounded righteousness? (p 72-73).
We are beyond taking a ‘breathing space’ now with the war. If we had in the initial days, or even sooner, the conditions in Iraq may not have deteriorated to the state they are in now. A louder voice would have been crying out sooner regarding the steps taken to put ourselves in the middle of a war in the Middle East. But are we not all to blame for not listening to those who were the loud voices, not to blame for not hearing them, for not being reflective instead of reflexive?
We need to evaluate all symbols and sloganeering that we encounter. What is really meant by a War on Terror? What is meant by an ‘axis of evil’? How can we move beyond stereotypes, to foster true understanding with others elsewhere in the world? While that might not answer the question of how we pull our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it might help us post-deployment with finding the path forward.