Tag Archives: World Trade Center

God’s Inscrutible but Tender Mercies (TDTCTW 12)

Amanda (not her real name) was a regular at Windows on the World. A dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, she had found life and its relationships to be confusing at best and frightening at worst. Windows on the World was a classy restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Floor to ceiling glass provided spectacular views of the city in all four directions. From more than 1300 feet up in the air cars, buses and taxis looked like tiny bugs making their way around a miniature city.

Amanda had three favorite views from the restaurant. The best view was to the east, where the East River bridges loomed in magnificent miniature over the water. The next best was to the north, where the Empire State and Chrysler buildings were pointed counterparts to the hundreds of giant, faceless boxes that make up the midtown Manhattan skyline. And the third view was to the southwest, where the Statue of Liberty was toylike in its tinyness, right in the middle of the bay that marked the outlet of the Hudson River. It was fascinating to watch the movements of boats on the water and helicopters through the air as they made their way to, from, and around the island on which the statue was placed.

The best time to enjoy these views was evening, as the sun went down. The blue sky gradually faded into varying shades of orange and pink. The sun would dip behind the distant landscape of the New Jersey shore. The sharp definition of bridges, buildings and traffic gradually faded into an awe inspiring backdrop of lights: from the red, white and blue glow on the top third of the Empire State Building, to the orange glow of sodium street lamps, to the bright whites of the offices where night owls toiled, keeping the finances of the world flowing in 24/7 continuity. New York City by night is like nowhere else on earth. And there was no better place to see those lights than from the unobstructed view on top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Tourists visiting the observation deck of the South Tower, on the other hand, had the North Tower’s bulk to contend with in their gaze toward midtown.

Amanda spent many an evening at Windows on the World, trying to center her life and cope with the pain of a difficult past. She describes herself as, “Not the most worthy person in town.” Over time the waiters and waitresses came to recognize her and adopted her as though she were one of the staff. They kept an eye on her, warding off the wrong kind of males. If she had had too much to drink as closing time approached, one or more waiters would escort her to the parking lot in the basement, drive her home, and make sure she made it into her apartment safely. The service staff at Windows on the World gradually became “family” to her.

Somewhat surprisingly, Amanda never brought a camera with her to the restaurant. She would describe the massive towers and the incredible views to far-flung family and acquaintances, but she never got around to actually collecting photos. After enduring repeated requests, she finally promised her mother that she would take some daytime pictures the week of September 10. When she heard that waiters were being called in for special preparations on the morning of September 11, she decided to take advantage of her relationships to get some early morning pictures out the restaurant windows. She agreed to be there at 8:30 AM, ten floors above and sixteen minutes before the impact of American Airlines Flight 11. She had no idea that a simple request from her mother was the equivalent of a death warrant. Of the 1432 civilians (not counting police, fire and other building personnel) who died in the North Tower, 1360 were in the upper part from the 92nd through the 110th floor.

On the morning of September 11 Amanda woke with a start at 8:40 AM. She was stunned when she looked at the clock, because she doesn’t normally oversleep. It was a beautiful, sunny day and she was amazed that she hadn’t stirred earlier. Feeling confused as to what to do, since she had already missed her appointment to get into the restaurant, she lay there a while trying to decide her next move. Fifteen minutes later her phone rang, it was a friend from New Jersey.

“Amanda, where are you, where are you?!?” a frantic voice shrilled.
“Where am I? I’m right here, where am I supposed to be?” Amanda felt even more confused, wondering what on earth was wrong with her friend.
“Where are you?!?” came the shrill voice once again.
“I’m right here, in my apartment, in fact I am lying in bed. Why do you want to know?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be at the World Trade Center right now?”
“Yes, I overslept.”
“Thank God, thank God, thank God!” her friend began to sob, “I thought you were dead!”
“What do you mean, dead?” Amanda asked.
“Are you sure you’re actually in your apartment right now?”
“Of course I’m sure, what’s going on?” By now Amanda was starting to get a little upset with her friend.
“You don’t know what happened? You’d better turn on your TV. A plane just crashed into your restaurant.” (Actually a few floors below.)

Not really comprehending the impossible, Amanda staggered over to the TV, rubbing a throbbing head and brushing long black hair away from her face. She turned it on just in time to catch the image of the North Tower smoldering as United Airlines flight 175 exploded into the South Tower. As she realized that many of her friends were trapped above the flames in the North Tower she was seized by the same panic that had motivated her friend to call.

“I’m fine, I’m fine, but please hang up, I need to try and get through to the restaurant and see if everyone is OK.”

Her friend hung up and she dialed Windows on the World, but the phone was busy. She dialed another number she knew, but nothing happened. She looked up the cell phones of a couple waiters at the restaurant and called, but the calls didn’t go through. Seized with fear and pain she was transfixed by the images on the screen until one by one the two towers collapsed and her hopes collapsed with them. 23 waiters and waitresses that she knew by name and face never went home that day. It was as if she had lost her whole extended family in a moment.

Amanda has often wondered why she was spared that day, while so many of her friends were lost. She doesn’t think of herself as “the most worthy person.” She has done many things in life that she regrets. On the other hand, the staff of the restaurant was a caring group who treated her as a “worthy person” even though she didn’t feel she deserved such treatment. She told me that they had treated her better than she would have treated them if the roles had been reversed.

Nevertheless, Amanda truly believes that her sleeping in that day was an act of God. It was just not normal for her. She believes that God saved her on September 11 and that it was a call to a new level of commitment to God and to right living. But why her? Why did God go out of His way to preserve her life when so many “worthier” people lost their lives that day? What did that say about God? To be continued.

A Challenge to My Fellow Christians (TDTCTW 8)

The climax of the Bible’s big picture is found in the last part, the New Testament. The Old Testament prophets pointed forward to a future major act of God. In that act God would send a Messiah to right the wrongs in this world. The Old Testament describes that Messiah as a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15,18), a king like David (Jer 23:5-6), and a conquering hero (Zech 9:9-10). From texts like these, one could easily get the impression that Jesus would be a powerful king who would dominate the political forces in His world (many Christians act as if it were so). But Jesus used these texts for a moral purpose rather than a political or economic one. His kingdom was not like the nations of this world (John 18:36-37). Warfare was not the way to attain spiritual goals (John 18:10-11). Jesus’ kingdom had to do with character development, spiritual growth and enhanced relationships with others and with God (Matt 5:21-48; Luke 17:20-21). While Jesus’ kind of kingdom would change the world, it had nothing to do with the weapons of this world (2 Cor 10:3-5).

I have gained great respect for the Qur’an and the dedication of those who practice its faith with mercy and compassion. There is no doubt in my mind that the Qur’an represents a great advance on the religious sensibilities of the tribal religions it replaced. And while some Christians may disagree, I believe the God portrayed in the Bible “has not left Himself without witness” (Acts 14:17) among those who did not have the Bible. God recognizes the sincere worship of people in every nation as directed to Himself (Mal 1:11).

Nevertheless, the Qur’an still leaves God distant from us. The God of the Qur’an does not speak our language (unless we have learned Arabic). He is not deeply engaged in our existence. He is distant and easily seems uncaring and even vengeful. By way of contrast, the God of the Bible is a practical God that meets us where we are. Unlike the distant God of Mohammed, He is deeply engaged in the human condition. But the Bible goes one step further. It claims that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being born in a stable of Bethlehem, raised in Egypt and Palestine, was none other than the living incarnation of God’s person (Heb 1:1-3). One who was God from the beginning took on human flesh (John 1:1-3,14). Such a God is deeply concerned about our situation. He taught and healed and comforted people in the humblest of circumstances. He was a “humble” God who never commanded His followers to use weapons in His behalf. Instead He commanded them to love their enemies (Matt 5:44), just as He did when He died for the very ones who crucified him (Rom 5:8-10).

I offered a serious challenge to Muslim thinkers a few days ago, but my challenge to traditional Christianity today is even more pointed. After all, Muslims who take up arms in behalf of their faith can at least point to their own sacred texts for justification. But what justification does the Bible offer for the way the West flaunts its power and wealth in the world? Where in the teaching and practice of Jesus is there any basis for advancing the Christian agenda through military, political or economic means? A Muslim could be excused for missing God’s call to mercy and compassion in the violence of the Qur’an, but what excuse can the follower of Jesus offer for missing God’s call to openness, grace, love and peace?

I know, I know. The United States and Europe are no longer truly “Christian” nations. The West today is not pursuing a religious agenda, but a political and economic one. But in the light of Christianity’s past, in the light of the Crusades and the Inquisition, can we really expect the Muslim world to understand the distinction between Western action and Christian faith? When they look at Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel in the light of Christianity’s past, where is the spirit of Jesus?

I believe that traditional Christianity has failed in its own struggle to grasp and demonstrate the teachings and attitude of Jesus, who humbled Himself and stepped down from heavenly wealth, power, and glory (Phil 2:5-8). He demonstrated in human form that the divine answer to violence and terror is found not in power and wealth, but in humility, authenticity, and forgiveness. Traditional Christianity has failed as badly as Islam to provide the solutions to the world’s problems. But in the process it has strayed even further from its roots than Islam has. In the next chapter I explore the fundamental reason for Christianity’s inability to see its own failures and offer a solution that is grounded in both the Bible and the traditions of Islam.

When it comes to knowing the God of the Bible, a little tentativeness is advisable. It was the lack of such tentativeness that killed four ATF agents and led David Koresh and his followers to destruction. It was a lack of such tentativeness that led Mohamed Atta to do the ghastly “work of God” that was September 11 and Osama bin Laden to plan and encourage it. All three men thought they knew exactly what God wanted them to do and exactly how to bring about the result that God had in mind. All three believed that God’s ways and their thoughts were in perfect harmony.

I find this, frankly, amazing. We don’t expect anyone to paint the “final painting,” one so perfect that no more art needs to be produced. We don’t expect “the final and complete discovery” from any scientist. Yet we have the capacity to think we have fully understood God, as if God were far more limited a concept than science or art! Many use religion and God-talk as a tool in behalf of their own agendas. But as the Psalmist says that they have made a basic error, they thought that God was just like them; just as rigid, unbending and at times hateful as they were (Psalm 50:16-21).

But the Bible actually portrays a God who cannot be put into a comfortable human box, who is not predictable. Whenever we think, speak or write about God it is critical to maintain a reverent tentativeness about our conclusions. We must leave God the freedom to be God. While openness, honesty, authenticity and humility are very much part of the philosophical landscape today, a call for these virtues is more than just political correctness. It is mandated by the very words of Scripture, which have in the past been misused for political or economic gain, but upon more careful examination portray a God who is very much unlike ourselves.

In the wake of September 11, it is imperative that we not only combat terrorism with the weapons of this world, it is even more critical that we combat it with the weapons of truth. Hatred, disparagement of other religions, boastful self-confidence in one’s absolute correctness, these are the ultimate roots of terrorism. A faith that exhibits the compassion, mercy, justice and love of God with an appropriate humility and openness will be a major part of our recovery from the event that changed the world.

Where I Was on September 11, 2001 (TDTCTW 6)

I landed at Schiphol Aiport in Amsterdam early on the morning of September 11. It was a beautiful sunny day and I quickly hooked up with the driver who was to take me to a conference a couple of hours drive away. The countryside was flat as a desktop, but interesting in a Dutch sort of way. After a meal, a nap and a little reading I headed for the dining room of the conference center around 5:30 PM (11:30 AM, New York time).

I always get a little nervous the first time I am in a large group of new people, particularly when most of them aren=t speaking my language. In this case the conference had about 900 attendees from all over Europe, from the Arctic Circle and Iceland in the north and west to Greece and Romania in the south and east. In that setting I was somewhat relieved that the dining room was not crowded. That meant I could eat by myself without seeming anti-social.

I was halfway through my meal, when a pastor from Croatia approached me. I remembered having seen him somewhere before and tried to be friendly in a dazed, jet-lagged sort of way. I was about to feel a lot more dazed. . . .
“Have you heard the news from America?” he asked.
“What news?” I grunted, thinking I might be in for more explanation than I cared to receive at that moment.
“I just heard that four passenger jets have crashed today in the United States,” he said excitedly.
“No way!” I said, “Such a thing has never happened before!”
“Two of them crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the towers collapsed, and another one crashed into the Pentagon!”
“World Trade Center collapsed? The Pentagon?” I was beyond confused, I was suspicious. One of the things I deal with in worldwide travel is all the wild and crazy rumors about stuff going on in America. People want to impress you with their knowledge of things and often they jump on reports that have no substance in the hope of impressing you. This was sounding like one of those times. “That’s impossible, you aren’t making this up are you?” In retrospect, I don’t think I was very nice to him.
“It must be true, I saw it on CNN. Go see for yourself. They have CNN on a big screen in the room just upstairs.”

I still didn’t know what to believe. I began to doubt my own reality. Perhaps I was still in a jet-lagged dream and would soon wake up in a bed somewhere in the Netherlands. But the food tasted real enough. I shook my head, trying to get the cobwebs out. I hurriedly finished my meal and dragged myself upstairs to the meeting room.

Several hundred people were crowded into the medium-sized room. Live feed from CNN was being projected onto a screen. Behind the CNN announcer was a view of the southern end of Manhattan Island in New York City. There was a huge cloud obscuring everything.

Although there were no seats available in the room, someone I knew motioned for the “New Yorker” to take his seat near the front in order to get a good view. I sat down and fixed my eyes on the screen for the next hour and a half. The nightmare continued. I peered intently at the screen looking for signs that the World Trade Center towers were still there. I couldn’t believe that they would have collapsed so easily. Then the network began repeatedly airing a new tape, showing the second airplane impacting the south tower, the fiery explosion that burst out the other side and the horrified cries of onlookers near the video camera. This was combined with repeated showings of panicked people running for their lives with a great billowing cloud of dust approaching rapidly behind them.

For me this scene cut deeper than for the hundreds of others watching with me. This was my home town. I grew up in New York. I had walked those very streets many times. No matter what perspective of the tragedy was being shown, I knew what I was looking at. I knew the likely location of the camera. I knew whether we were looking north, south, east or west. Then I considered what I knew about the World Trade Center. On a typical business day, about 50,000 people went to work in the twin towers. At any given time, perhaps 10,000 tourists would also be there, going up to the viewing decks of the South Tower or the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. As the reality of the towers= collapse was made clear by repeated showings of the video, the magnitude of the tragedy began to sink in. This was my home town! These were my neighbors and friends. I just knew that somebody close to me must have been in those towers, must be in the rubble that was left of the towers.

Then it struck me! Rolf, a good friend from school days, had asked me what he and his family ought to do with a week in New York. I told him, “Whatever you do, make sure that you visit the observation deck of the World Trade Center and catch the view of New York.” September 11 was right in the middle of the week he was supposed to be visiting New York. I was distraught with concern but could do absolutely nothing about it. I had no way of contacting him from the Netherlands.

I took a little comfort when I remembered my advice, “On the day that you visit the downtown, get to the Statue of Liberty ferry first thing in the morning. That is the only way you might get the chance to climb all the way to the top of the statue. Then, when you get back to Manhattan, walk to the New York Stock Exchange and arrange for a tour later in the day. That way you’ll get to the observation deck of the World Trade Center in early afternoon, when the view is the best.” I realized that if he had followed my advice, he would be looking at the tragedy from Liberty Island, not crushed under the rubble! But I had no way of knowing where he was (later I found out he and his family had decided not to go to the towers that day).

What I started to learn about myself that day is the topic of tomorrow’s blog.

Anatomy of a Terrorist

“Except for the place where they died, Bill Feehan and Mohamed Atta would seem to have had absolutely nothing in common. . . . As a lifelong firefighter who rose to become first deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, Feehan was directly or indirectly responsible for saving thousands of lives. As a suicidal terrorist who flew American Airlines flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center; Atta murdered thousands, including Bill Feehan, who was helping a woman at the base of the North Tower when the building collapsed on him. Any suggestion of moral equivalence between the two men is repugnant. And yet, it must be said, both believed in the rightness of their causes with absolute certainty.” (Newsweek, Dec. 31, 2001/Jan. 7, 2002, p. 40)

Is there an “anatomy of a terrorist?” How is it that two wiggly baby boys could one day end up in the same place but for such different reasons? How could anyone come to believe the slaughter of innocents was the “right” thing to do? It would be a lot easier on most of us if we could believe that Mohamed Atta was totally insane, the victim of mad delusions. But could a truly crazy person work with the calm and careful purpose that Atta exhibited? Does it make more sense to assume that Mohamed Atta was simply evil? And if so, how did he get that way?

According to a description in Newsweek, based on interviews with family and others who knew him, Mohamed Atta would have seemed an unlikely candidate for terrorist action. Short and slim (in the highjacking of American Airlines, Flight 11 he was leader and pilot, the other four highjackers provided the brawn) he was considered a “mamma’s boy” by his father. Atta Sr. would complain to his wife that she was raising Mohamed as a girl. Even in his 20s he continued to sit in his mother’s lap from time to time. There was a further problem for a prospective highjacker: he absolutely hated flying! His sister, who was a doctor, had to provide medicine against cramps and vomiting every time he flew.

An interesting obsession of his, however, offered a premonition of the shocking way that he would choose to die. On the wall of Mohamed Atta’s apartment in Hamburg, Germany was a black-and-white poster of construction workers perched on a beam of the Empire State Building high above New York (taken back in 1930). According to his teachers and former classmates, Atta believed that high-rise buildings were a curse introduced into the Middle East from the West. In the Middle East the traditional method of construction has been one- or two-story houses with private courtyards. When this was done well it resulted in the kind of charming, bustling neighborhood life that tourists to the Middle East love to taste. The interior courtyards provided privacy, the beauty of the neighborhood provided dignity, and the whole fostered interaction and community.

In the 60s and 70s, however, Middle Eastern cities and towns became filled with impersonal and ugly apartment complexes. Atta’s own family moved into an 11th floor apartment in 1990, as he was graduating with an engineering degree from Cairo University. The building his own family lived in became for him a shabby symbol of Egypt’s embrace of Western ways. Secular Arabs had accepted the negative trappings of the modern world without attaining its wealth and freedom.

Atta began to study ways to reverse the situation and restore the old glories of Islam. A major opportunity came when his father decided to send him to engineering school at Hamburg Technical University in Germany. There he pursued a degree in urban-planning studies. His thesis was on the restoration of Aleppo, an ancient Syrian city, to its pure Islamic past– devoid of skyscrapers. He was awarded a B+ for the thesis.

But how did the mamma’s boy become a mass murderer? Atta’s progress from idealistic student to Islamic militant to terrorist seems to have been gradual. At first his goal was the improvement of urban life in the Middle East. Then in Cairo University he came under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which aimed to create an Islamic state and limit Western influence in Egypt through non-violent means.

Mohamed Atta’s gathering resentments were probably sharpened by the anti-foreigner attitude in Germany, where Muslim immigrants often feel like second-class citizens. He found refuge in the mosques of Hamburg, where the mullahs have a lot more freedom to speak than they do in Egypt. Recruiting for the terrorist underground sometimes occurs in these mosques. Atta is believed to have been specifically recruited into al Qaeda by Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German citizen of Syrian descent (reported in USA Today on June 19, 2002).

In 1995, Atta went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, searching for a deeper commitment to his faith. In 1997 he traveled to Afghanistan and enrolled in one of Osama bin Laden’s training camps for terrorists. Egyptians were given special treatment in these camps, so Atta would have quickly felt at home. The camps were designed to solidify beliefs, fan the flames of hatred, and then train people for specialized roles in the mission of terror. Atta himself was chosen for a leadership role and trained in the arts of bomb making and chemical weaponry. While he was not intimidating in appearance, he seems to have had a hard stare that made it difficult for people to cross him. Power is more than just a physical thing.

When he returned to Hamburg in 1998 he established an al Qaeda cell that included two roommates, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah, who also participated in the suicide highjackings on September 11. All three came from middle-class families, were skilled in computers and were highly educated. Once set on his course, Atta made further preparation by getting flight training in Florida, examining potential targets in the US, and finally heading for Portland, Maine, where he was to board a connecting flight to Boston with one of his terrorist “muscle-men,” Abdulaziz Alomari. In Boston they were able to transfer without passing through further security and the rest is history. A “momma’s boy” who hated skyscrapers found a way to destroy one of the two most massive towers in the world, at the cost of thousands of human lives. And he did so in the name of God.

According to Newsweek, Mohamed Atta carefully planned out his final moves. In a document he titled “The Last Night” he wrote to himself, “Be happy, optimistic, calm, because you are heading for a deed God loves and will accept. It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise.” And with regard to the last moment before impact, Atta wrote, “Either end your life while praying, seconds before the target, or make your last words: ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammad is His messenger.’” Was Atta’s vision the inevitable product of Islam or did he misunderstand the faith he served so fervently? Does the Qur’an itself contain the seeds of suicidal terrorism or is al Qaeda a blasphemous misinterpretation of Mohammed’s original intentions? To be continued.

When Mohamed Atta’s plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center Bill Feehan was at his Brooklyn office. A 42-year veteran, he had held every imaginable job in the New York City Fire Department, from “proby” to acting commissioner. At 71 years of age he could have retired years before September 11. In fact, one of Feehan’s aides had sensed that he was about to call it quits. A memorial plaque for firefighters who died in the line of duty hung in the lobby of FDNY headquarters. It had room for 780 names. Over 136 years of existence the Fire Department had bid final farewell to 778 of its number. One day Feehan told a friend, “I want to be out of here before that plaque is full.” Little did he know at that moment that on a sunny day in September the list would grow by nearly 50%.

An aide called Feehan, “Hey boss! I think you better see this! A plane went into the World Trade Center.”

Feehan emerged from his office, looked out a west-facing window and saw the smoke swirling from the upper levels of the north tower. “Oh my God!” he said, “Let’s go!” He and his team raced across the Brooklyn Bridge to take charge of the fire companies responding to the tragedy. Although they did not know each other, Feehan was about to join Mohamed Atta in the rubble of the North Tower. They both arrived there by choice. Bill Feehan and Mohamed Atta met their deaths in the same place because one man chose to destroy and the other chose to save.

The Islamic World of Osama bin Laden (TDTCTW 2)

The attack on the World Trade Center was intended as a blow against the United States and its Christian heritage. The results of that attack, however, were not limited to the target. The roll of those who died at Ground Zero included people from literally scores of nations and faith convictions. Usman Farman is a Pakistani Muslim who was working on the 27th floor of one of the Trade Towers on September 11. As he left the tower he fell stunned to the ground, perhaps as a result of flying debris. When a Hasidic Jew found Farman lying on the ground there was no hesitation. “He helped me stand up,” Farman reported, “And we ran for what seemed like forever without looking back. He was the last person I would ever have thought would help me. If it weren’t for him I probably would have been engulfed in shattered glass and debris.” Did the terrorist attackers realize that scores of faithful Muslims like Farman would die that day, along with many others who had nothing to do with American policy? And the suffering of the survivors cuts across many lines of faith.

Among the people who died in the World Trade Center were Michael Baksh, a Pakistani Christian, Abul Chowdhury, an Indian Muslim, and Doris Eng, a Buddhist of Chinese origin. Did the terrorists care that in taking down the World Trade towers they were killing hundreds of people from nearly half the nations in the world? Did they have no discrimination at all in their hatred? Was Osama bin Laden simply a mass murderer without a conscience? Did he somehow find joy in the slaughter of innocents?

For many the blame should be placed squarely on Osama bin Laden’s religion, Islam. Note the strong words of archconservative commentator, Ann Coulter: “Airports scrupulously apply the same laughably ineffective airport harassment to Suzy Chapstick as to Muslim hijackers. It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren=t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities: we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”

This judgment, it seems to me, is blatantly unfair. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that terrorism is not limited to Muslims and to Islamic organizations. The list of terrorist organizations includes the Irish Republican Army, the Jews who blew up the King David Hotel in 1948, Puerto Rican nationalists, Basque separatists, the Shining Path of Peru, Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, the Italian Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Croatian separatists of communist Yugoslavia and the Japanese Red Army. None of the above involved any Muslims to my knowledge. And even a short visit to the Middle East makes it clear that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists either. Nevertheless, the tie between Islam and terrorism became particularly acute after September 11, and it is worth some effort to understand the reasons for it.

A Middle Eastern Perspective
Ann Coulter’s attitude strikes me as the reaction of someone viewing the Middle East from a distance. In order to understand Osama bin Laden it helps to have spent some time in the Middle East and to have some appreciation of the role of Islam in Middle Eastern life and experience. I made my first trip to the Middle East in 1995. My family and I stayed in Palestinian Jerusalem for ten weeks. We ate Arab food and became friends with many. I think of Marwan, the shopkeeper, who always took time to talk about current events and give me advice on how to behave in an Arab community. I think of Gabriel, the travel agent, who had his ear to the Palestinian underground, and was careful to send us places only when it was safe to do so. I think of the nameless falafel vendor I rescued one day when an errant vehicle knocked over his stand. His gratitude was overwhelming. To this day he immediately recognizes me and greets me with a hug and a kiss, no matter how long I have been away.

I have now been to various locations in the Middle East more than a dozen times. The Middle East has become part of me now. As a New Yorker I have deep sympathy for the sufferings of the Jews. I am glad that there is a homeland Jews can call their own. At the same time my heart goes out to the Palestinian people, who share that land with them. I saw Israeli soldiers, often looking no older than 16, carrying machine guns with an air of authority. I saw Palestinian youths and shopkeepers being challenged, hollered at, and prodded with the weapons. I sensed their helplessness. Occasionally they shared their frustration and rage with me.

The “salem” in Jerusalem means “peace,” but Jerusalem is a very angry city. There is a lot of shouting, a lot of pushing and shoving going on, and not just between Israeli and Arab, or Christian and Muslim, but among Muslims and among Christians. In the Old City, the powder is dry and the fuse is short. My falafel friend almost came to blows one day over some dispute or other. I stopped walking by and hung around, in case he needed help, but after a few minutes things quieted down. Another time I watched Orthodox Jews march through the Arab section, shoving Arabs aside if they got in the way, secure in the knowledge that soldiers up on the walls would take care of things if anyone protested. A couple of times I was mistaken for an Israeli myself. The first time a Coke bottle glanced off my shoulder and shattered at my feet. It was dropped from a bridge above me by a laughing child, no more than seven years old. Another time I was missed by small stones thrown by three boys no more than ten.

I was surprised to learn the obvious differences between Muslims and Christians in Arab Jerusalem. If you go into a grocery store and see alcohol, you know that the owner is a Christian, a Muslim grocery owner would not sell alcohol. If you see an Arab woman dressed like a European, she is a Christian, a Muslim would dress far more modestly. Since most Israelis would line up with the Christians on these two points, I began to see how Muslims could come to view Christians and Jews as holding to an inferior faith. If, on top of that, Israelis act like oppressors and the Christian West does nothing about it, Judeo-Christianity as a whole is painted with a single stroke.

It is for reasons such as this that I have sensed some reserve toward Americans in the Middle East. On my first visit to Egypt, we traveled by boat from the port of Aqaba in Jordan to the Egyptian port of Nuweiba on the Sinai coast. The Americans were all directed to the first-class lounge, an air conditioned hall in the center of the ferry which had TVs, drinks and luxurious accommodations. But as we looked out the windows at the coastline of Saudi Arabia, passing in the midday heat, it dawned on me that there were no locals anywhere in sight. So I decided to go exploring through the ship. I discovered hundreds of Arabs scattered across the top deck in the hot sun, sitting on metal bulkheads and extended “park benches.” Some were trying to sleep right on the metal floor of topside. Many were wearing clothing that was dirty or tattered, this was clearly not the wealthy section of the ship.

A young Saudi, sitting in a bit of shade on the bench that ran along the side of the ship, noticed the American walking around and called to me in excellent English. He was very polite, but he jumped at the chance to open up some political issues. His view of the world was very different from mine, yet compelling in its own way. He shared his sense that the American government wanted to be seen as beneficent, yet its actions and demands were based on self-interest. Arab people like the freedom and openness of American society, but they don’t like the immorality and the “big stick” attitude toward other countries. He put his frustration in direct terms, “Why does everything always have to go America’s way?” This was a new way of looking at things for me. Until then, I had thought of Middle Eastern countries as the ones who were unreasonable and demanding.

A couple of years later I was getting off a plane with friends in Luxor, Egypt. A travel agent met us in baggage claim and gave us some instructions for the day. He then asked one of my friends what he did for a living. He said he worked for a Christian church. The agent’s eyes immediately brightened, “Then you are rich!” he said. This comment served as a summary of many Egyptian attitudes toward the Christian West, they see it as a different kind of world; uncaring, greedy, and rich. It is useful to have Westerners around, but their beliefs are not to be taken seriously.

The Grievances of Osama bin Laden
Terrorist groups have long called themselves things like “Islamic Jihad.” In 1998 Osama bin Laden called a “jihad against Crusaders and Jews” to justify the bombing of the US embassies in Africa. For him this jihad justified any Muslim “to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they are found.” But within Islam, jihad is not a clear-cut concept. It does not merely describe military warfare in defense of the faith. A better translation for jihad might actually be “effort” or “struggle” (there are other words in the Qur’an for “war” and “fighting”). Often it describes not warfare, but the personal struggle to be a better person, a better Muslim. However one translates it, jihad is a powerful concept in the Muslim world. When justified by the course of events, it becomes a personal obligation that stands above all others.

Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad was based on the conviction that Americans have declared war “on God, his messenger and Muslims.” In other words, America and Americans have committed “crimes against Islam.” How could he possibly have come to such a conclusion? There are several factors. The first of these is the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The history behind it looks very different to Arab eyes. While securing a homeland for Jews made a lot of sense in the West after the Holocaust, the original partition of Palestine came at the expense of Arabs whose ancestors had been in the land for centuries. Nevertheless, world-wide sympathy for the plight of the Jews during the war resulted in a UN partition which ceded over half of Palestine to the Jews, although only a third of population was Jewish and Jews owned an even smaller percentage of the land. In subsequent fighting the Israelis gained control of the entire land and are building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza despite UN resolutions requiring the return of land conquered in 1967. To Arab eyes this looks suspiciously like a revival of the Crusades, with Israel at the forefront and America guiding behind the scenes.

I do not want to be misunderstood here. I know that the story can be told very differently from the Israeli perspective. But I think it is important for our purpose to see through the eyes of the terrorist, as far as that is possible for us to do. Jewish desperation after the Holocaust was real and for many Jews the homeland in the Middle East was the only spark of hope at the time. But the desperation of the Palestinian refugee camps remains to this day. People living in perpetual poverty are dying at the expense of weapons purchased with the billions of dollars in military aid America gives Israel each year. From the Muslim perspective this is a serious injustice that is ongoing and has never been addressed. For bin Laden the injustice was criminal.

A second major grievance of bin Laden had to do with the corrupt and secular governments ruling over most Muslim countries. Governments of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were seen as unelected, oppressive, pandering to the West and soft on Islam. It is not surprising that bin Laden, himself a Saudi, was no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia, he was a greater threat to the sheiks of Saudi Arabia than he was to the United States. He believed that secular Arab leaders are mere tools of the West, using the power of the West to cement their own personal position at the expense of the Muslim masses. While the United States did not set up these governments directly, in the minds of Islamic extremists they would not stand without American support.

In a Western-dominated world, Muslims seem to be humiliated on every side. The Israelis (Palestine and the regional wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973), the Serbs (in Bosnia and Kosovo), the Russians (in Chechnya and other Muslim republics of central Asia) and the Indians (in Kashmir and various parts of India) have all found ways to marginalize Muslim interests around the world. On top of these slights the West has “imposed” Western law codes on Muslim states, enforced Western economic ideas, including the charging of interest (contrary to Islamic law), and exported alcohol, drugs, pornography and crime. It is frustrating to an Islamic zealot to believe that the Islamic culture is superior, yet to acknowledge that America has vastly superior power and wealth.

Bin Laden’s Strategy for September 11
For bin Laden the crucial question became how to restore Islam to a respected place in the world again? Could diplomacy accomplish that? Experience told bin Laden that diplomacy would not work. The West had been “negotiating” with the Middle East for more than a century, and what was the result? The establishment of Israel, for one. Another result was the colonial powers dividing the Middle East into artificial nations with no consideration of tribal territories and local interests. Meanwhile the West grew richer and more powerful and the Muslim world became increasingly irrelevant.

Should the Muslim world stand up and fight in military terms then? In its present state of weakness that would be foolish. Anyone unconvinced by the dominance of the Israeli attacks in 1967 and 1982 (in Lebanon) should have no further doubts after the Gulf War and the rapid takeover of Afghanistan in 2001. In an age of information technology both the American and Israeli military are overwhelming and incontestable in conventional terms. Any form of direct, frontal assault would be the equivalent of suicide. So for bin Laden, there was only one alternative to helplessness, and that was terrorism, strategic suicide.

This gives us some insight into the mindset of bin Laden when he gave the go-ahead for the attack of September 11, 2001. While the actions of the highjackers were gruesome and incomprehensible to Westerners, they were part of a strategic plan to change the balance of power in the world. The leaders of al Qaeda saw the Islamic world being occupied by non-Islamic forces. To change the balance of power in the world al Qaeda must find a way to end the “occupation” and re-unite Islam. Since the United States is the leading power in the world and the patron of many Islamic regimes, it has become the great enemy that motivates and controls an anti-Islamic agenda.

Defeating the United States in a conventional way is not a realistic option. But the kind of terrorism bin Laden unleashed burdens America with trillions of dollars of expenses to fight terrorism at home and abroad. It distracts Americans with the constant fear of unsuspected attacks. It makes Americans feel as insecure as Europeans and Israelis have felt for decades. It makes isolationism look more attractive. If, in the process, the United States can be caused to withdraw from the Islamic world, other anti-Islamic powers such as Russia, China and Israel would be helpless to intervene. Corrupt and secular governments in the Muslim world would then have no base of outside support and would be overthrown by the Islamic masses. We got a brief taste of this during the Arab Spring of 2011.

So Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists do not expect to destroy the United States directly. It is too powerful and too distant for that to happen. Rather, bin Laden’s strategy seems to have been to force the United States into a series of actions that destabilize the governments of those Middle Eastern countries that are dependant on Washington. If pressure from the United States forces those governments to join the US in fighting Islamic militants or to remain silent in the face of Israeli aggression, popular uprisings could easily lead to their collapse. The ultimate goal would be the establishment of an Islamic superpower, a vast Islamic state stretching from Morocco to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, governed by Islamic law.

Could a bin Laden achieve such goals? He clearly believed the United States does not have the stomach to suppress a mass, popular uprising. Unlike al Qaeda Americans as a rule do their best not to hurt innocents. The same military that is virtually invincible in battle would have a difficult time handling an army of unarmed women and children. Although the United States has important interests in the Islamic world, they are not on a scale to justify the expense and casualties involved in a long-term occupation. To the degree that further terrorist acts in the US should occur, the American populace could easily sway toward an isolationist stance. If this isolationism should lead to withdrawal from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and even the partial abandonment of Israel, the political world would have changed considerably in favor of the Islamic agenda.

So from bin Laden’s perspective war in diplomatic, economic or military terms would only result in the further humiliation of Islam. But terrorism has altered the battlefield odds. Since the targets vastly outnumber the defenders, al Qaeda has designed a war strategy in which it has significant advantages. U.S. power is weakened in that defensive action must be widely dispersed. Suicidal fervor creates a low-tech battlefield in which superior technology is neutralized as a weapon. Will all or part of bin Laden=s grand design ever succeed? The battle is far from over. September 11 continues to be a day that changed the world.

The Day That Changed the World

A little after 9 AM David looked at his watch. An airplane had just struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. From his viewpoint on the upper floors of the South Tower David could see black smoke pouring out of the impact area and drifting toward the east. Residents of the South Tower immediately began to evacuate the skyscraper as a precaution. But David calculated that it would take at least an hour to inch down to the ground in the already crowded stairwells of the South Tower. He hit the elevator button. The doors opened. People in the lobby behind him shook their heads.

David didn’t have time to explain. He thought, “If the ‘accident’ is really limited to the North Tower, the elevators in the south tower should be fully functional.” He got into the elevator with several others, but it remained half empty. As the elevator paused for a moment at the 78th floor, the second jetliner was about 60 seconds from impact. He called out to a woman friend and asked her to join him in the elevator.

“No,” she said, “I want to stay here and watch over the other people.”
David said, “Well, good luck to you.”
She responded, “Good luck to you, too.”

It was the last time he would ever see her. As the half-empty elevator’s doors closed, David would never forget the picture of all those faces looking at him. Back at his apartment, eleven blocks north of the World Trade Center, David watched the two smoldering towers. He didn’t realize that the wingtip of the second airplane had already ripped through the 78th floor elevator lobby, wreaking havoc among his former office mates. Although he had just come from the towers, it was hard to believe what he was seeing. Even as the South Tower came down, he turned his head to the left and watched the scene unfold simultaneously on the television, as if to verify that what he saw outside his window was really happening. Reality and fantasy seemed to have become one.

A short time later, and dazed with shock, Paul watched the screen of his television from the safety of Europe. Time and again CNN showed video of the second airliner approaching from the south and embedding itself completely into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, the tower David had just evacuated. Then the television began presenting more personal images. Men in white shirts and ties, carrying bags; girls in jeans; police in uniform; suddenly all were running away from the cyclone cloud of death, running for their lives, gasping for breath, terror in their eyes. Soon after came “images from hell.” A man in a business suit using his tie as a filter in order to breathe. A woman with earrings and pearls around her neck, and boots covered with dust, her mouth open– a dark gaping hole in her ashen face, hands spread apart, eyes terror-stricken. Dirty, bleeding survivors trudging toward where? Home? The company’s other office? A friend’s place?

What televisions could not share effectively were the sounds, the feel, the taste and the smell of September 11. The video clips shared insight into the screams and the cries of panic and terror that accompanied the collapse of the towers, but they could not share the deafening roar, the trembling of the ground, and above all the taste of death. Those who were there say that you could taste the air more easily than you could breathe it. Even weeks later the acrid smell emanating from Ground Zero was nauseating. And in the middle of it all, came the realization that the burning of human flesh was a part of the mix.

After the collapse of the two towers the “action” was largely over. So CNN kept showing the same video clips over and over. As reality began to sink in, Paul was particularly riveted by the image of the second plane approaching from the south, dipping its wings to the left at the last second, and disappearing into the South Tower. As Paul viewed the scene over and over again he sensed an urge within to reach out into the screen, grab hold of the plane and save the towers and their occupants. “Is that what God must be feeling?” he suddenly thought to himself. “Did God want to prevent this as much as I do? Was he unable to stop it? Did He decide not to intervene? Was He there at all?” Paul found his thoughts getting more and more confused.

While Paul’s view of God was thrown into confusion by the events of September 11, others found themselves seeking God for the first time. It was truly a day that changed the world. There was the sense that twenty or even a hundred years from now, we would look back on this event as one that fundamentally altered the way we look at the world, an event of epic proportions like Pearl Harbor, the Protestant Reformation, or the Russian Revolution. It has left us a world that is less predictable than its predecessor. We can never again feel as secure as we felt at the dawning of that day. The world is at war, but it’s a war unlike any war in history.
Three themes seem to be moving to the center of our consciousness: family, meaning, and making a difference in the world.

September 11 was a day that changed the world. In this book we will explore some of the changes in the military, political and economic landscape. We will peer, at times, into the murky glass of an uncertain future, trying to make sense of it all. We will discover the role the internet played in these changes. We will explore America’s frantic attempts to defend itself through high-tech weapons, electronic eavesdropping, a renewed interest in the dirty side of spying. We will strive to to understand the interplay between Christianity and Islam that seems to lie behind these events. We will explore the anatomy of a terrorist, the forces and ideas that could turn a mamma’s boy into a mass murderer in a few short years. We will also seek to understand the realities that drove Osama bin Laden into consummate hatred of America and its philosophy of life.

The Purpose of This Book (In digested blog form here)

Above all else we will explore the spiritual implications of this event and the changes it introduced into our world. September 11 changed the way millions of people viewed God and their relationship to Him. Many believers found themselves confused by His seeming absence in the face of enormous tragedy and pain. Many more, believers and unbelievers alike, found tokens of His presence in the midst of the tragedy. People began to find time for God in a world that seemed to have gone mad.

I am not talking about a rebirth of “religion” here. Suspicion of religion was not lessened by September 11. If anything the terrorist links to Islamic fundamentalism, and conservative Christian calls for revenge, raised fresh questions about the role of religion in building a just and peaceful society. At the same time, however, these events have highlighted the need for a higher Power and purpose for life. Any spiritual organization that wishes to meet that need, however, must take a careful look at its own motives and practices first. Like Judaism after the Holocaust, spiritual business as usual no longer seems appropriate. Flip and shallow answers are no longer welcome.

One more thing. I realize the peril of trying to put how I feel about September 11 into words. A New Yorker named Dan Fahrbach spoke at a memorial service a few days later. As I remember it he said something like, “We have used up all our big words on relatively small things. At a time like September 11 silence is unbearable, but speech is even worse. What happened cannot be described in words. But many people are discovering that there are words from long ago that speak for us. The pages of the Bible contain words that express the inexpressible. There are stories and sayings that draw out meaning at times and in places where no meaning seemed possible.”

In a world where shallow and confident answers have become suspect, the Bible is not afraid to ask the hard questions and explore dueling answers. The Bible portrays a God who is pleased when people care enough to shake their fist at him. He is a God who faced the agonizing death of His Son with purposeful silence. Such a God may be hard to understand, but He is never boring (even though some who worship Him may be). He may be hard to find at times, but when we find Him, He is worth the time we spent seeking Him. From my quest for God to yours, this book is about an experience that has never been more relevant than it is today, in the aftermath of September 11.