Most university freshmen this year don’t remember September 11th; it was fifteen years ago, they were toddlers. Those freshmen have grown up in a world of airport security theatre, a seemingly interminable chain of Western wars in the Middle East, and “Muslims” being the bogey-man unscrupulous politicians use to draw attention away from their own lack of achievements or vision. I was in middle school on that day in 2001; old enough to remember hearing the announcement in spelling class at my too-short, pastel-coloured desk and watching the endless loop of the tower falling on TV that evening, but not old enough to really remember what life was like before. I know enough history to know it wasn’t some mythical era of world peace shattered forever by one violent act – the Cold War ended around the time I was born, and I suspect children of that previous generation could tell similar stories of growing up under the threat of mutually assured destruction.
The thing I remember most about those early days was the uncertainty, and the fear that came with it – terrorism used to be something that happened “somewhere else” (to be fair, most of it still does happen “somewhere else” than North America and Western Europe), but suddenly we in the safe and prosperous West had been attacked. Less than a month later we had invaded Afghanistan, the first campaign in the (still unresolved) “War on Terror”. Given that most of the wars you learn about as a child were between roughly equal powers, childish logic demanded that the swiftly forming international coalition be matched by a similarly powerful opposing coalition, leading to World War III, global nuclear devastation, and the End Times (I read too much Left Behind at that age).
Happily, my worst fears did not come to pass, and I was able to grow up to write high school civics papers on whether the cost in civilian and combatant lives was justified, read science magazine discussions about the de-humanizing effects of drone warfare, see internet memes about “Gulf Wars II” and “iRaq, by Apple”, and listen to and participate in the perennial political debates about our ongoing military action in the Middle East. The War on Terror has been part of the setting of my entire adolescence and adulthood, and yet oddly removed from my personal experience. Some of my countrymen died in the initial act of terrorism, and others have died and killed on foreign soil on my behalf in the years since, but I don’t know any of them personally, so my perception of the War on Terror has been strictly media-disseminated and filtered by political and ideological spin. To the extent that things which one can personally and directly observe feel more “real” than things that one can’t, the only “reality” to me of the post-9/11 state of the world is the pervasive fear about it I see around myself (and sometimes in myself).
It may be terribly trite, but I do not think this fear has made us our best selves. The Bible tells us that “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18) – love is self-sacrificial, whereas fear is driven by the inherently selfish instinct to preserve oneself. I think the converse is also true, that fear drives out love – we cannot act in love, sacrificing ourselves for others when we’re living in a state of fear for our own safety. This kind of fear-driven thinking is particularly marked in the recent rise in overt anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. We in the West bear some responsibility for the flood of refugees knocking at our borders (Middle Eastern politics has not been simple any time in recent memory, but a decade-plus occupation by a foreign military force does not seem like a stabilizing factor to me), but yet our response collectively and individually has been in places shockingly miserly, with overblown concerns about strengthening our already sufficiently exhaustive immigration controls, and rhetoric about “stolen jobs” that makes no economic sense – the economy is not a zero-sum game where someone winning means that someone else has lost, and an influx of working-age adults with the dedication to escape a war zone should lead to economic growth, making everyone better off (I predict Germany’s generous welcome of refugees will have paid off quite handsomely in ten years or so). I wish the Levitical command to love the foreigner residing among you and treat them as well as native-born citizens (Lev. 19:34) got as much play as some of the others.
Regardless of creed, I think most of us would agree that the great project of humanity is to build a better world, and also that fear, persecution, and insensitivity to the pain of others do not have a place in that better world. Terrorism, by definition, creates fear, but once created that fear is built upon, sometimes by people mutually reinforcing each others’ fear, sometimes by unscrupulous men and women looking to gain personal advantage from others’ fear. If the fifteen-year “War on Terror” has taught us anything I think it is that terror cannot be fought with bombs and that our own fears cannot be sated by making others afraid of us. Our wars have bred reprisals, our own fears compounded and multiplied by the effects of our fear-based responses. The problems of war and global terror are too big for any of us to solve, but that should not stop us from choosing love over fear in what ways we can, from building the better world where we are, from moving the needle in hopes that our children or theirs will be able to grow up in a world that is not as defined by fear as ours is.