October 2011‎ > ‎

2 - Doing the Unexpected

Professor Emeritus Henk Hart offers his reflection on our post-9/11 world.

This anniversary could inspire us to learn to respond to all violence anywhere in a spirit of reconciliation, restoration and shared hope.

Image Caption (Page 4): Created by Willem Hart

The recent tragic and shocking mass killings in Oslo almost immediately became a catalyst for widespread and in-depth reflection, in Norway as well as other European countries, about right-wing political rhetoric. There are legitimate and well-supported political parties scattered across Europe directing hatred at foreigners invading their nations with alien cultural and religious influence. The reflections seek to understand the rise and legitimation of this hatred in their culture as it feeds sick minds and explodes in catastrophe. Even more recently violence on a large scale erupted in England, and again the media swiftly offered reflection on how socio-economic and political conditions, especially in the big cities, could be connected to spawning such violence. Here, too, the reflection was widespread and deep, and it was aimed at finding appropriate responses to deadly violence.

As I thought about the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was struck by how differently the cataclysmic events in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa., were received. Reflection – significant reflection – was not entirely lacking. Voices were heard that advised against counter violence and instead counseled people to feed hope with compassion. But this never became widespread and was quickly ignored. Fear and anger set the tone from the start and formed a fertile backdrop for a favorable public reception of the call to war. Could this difference in facing violence point to a missed opportunity a decade ago in the United States? Did the country that sees itself as God’s chosen instrument to spread freedom and democracy in the world fail to nourish that freedom and democracy by not reflecting on and learning from the resentful reception of the American mission in poor parts of the world where people live in despair? Did America’s response to 9/11 confirm the perception of these desperate people – that what was presented to them as freedom and democracy was a disguise for a militarily enforced imperialism?

I ask this on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 not, at this time, to sort out the truth in this clash of perceptions, but instead to ask: Did 9/11 not cry out for reflection – widespread and deep reflection – on the play of political, economic, social, cultural and religious forces that likely contributed to the mood that spawned these hideous events? Why were there no public reconciliation, forgiveness and compassion in the response to 9/11? These redemptive forces are not only powerfully present in the religious traditions shaping America, but they have also proved to be practically effective in resolving deep conflict. So-called truth and reconciliation processes do really make a contribution to healing and renewal. Would Nelson Mandela, having gained his freedom, have been more effective had he declared war on his oppressors? Would any sincere Christian, upon being asked how to deal with an enemy, respond by saying Jesus expects us to subdue the enemy by force? No one doubts the answers are "No." But why, then, didn’t the president of the United States on 9/11, knowing himself to be a Christian, recommend Congress reflect on an authentic response to the horrors of 9/11 that would honor the gospel of love?

America is still at war with Afghanistan, the space of the twin towers in New York still has no memorial, and there is no provisional closure yet for the public that reacted so much in anger and fear. But a whole decade has passed since that explosive morning of September 11, 2001, and the passage of time may enable us to begin widespread and deep discussion about a response to 9/11 that, even now, is anchored in compassion. It’s not too late at the beginning of the second decade after 9/11 to contemplate how freedom and democracy could be more authentically embodied in a practice of compassion toward people in despair. And beyond 9/11 this anniversary could inspire us to learn to respond to all violence anywhere in a spirit of reconciliation, restoration and shared hope.

John Paul Lederach, a man of peace and an expert on dealing with terrorism’s violence, wrote an essay right after 9/11, which he entitled "Let’s do the unexpected." He argued on the basis of decades of experience that the most effective response to a 9/11-type event would be to do what no one would expect – to reach out to those whose discontent and despair inspired 9/11 and to offer them peace, help, support. In short: show them compassion. Two of my brothers were so moved by this article they decided to take a concrete step in its direction. Peter Hart constructed a website inviting people to do the unexpected and Willem Hart designed a powerful graphic for it, depicting shalom as a response to violence. In the background of the graphic we see the events of 9/11, the crumbling towers and the destroying planes, graphically incorporating the names of those who died, and the word "violence" violently breaking itself apart. In the foreground is the dove of hope and peace bearing the olive branch. And challenging us are the words: "Let’s do the unexpected."

Anger, fear and force have shaped all major responses to 9/11 and there is insufficient evidence to conclude any were successful. Anger, fear and force have likely never genuinely solved any problems, yet we have not ended our reliance on countering violence with violence. Anger, fear and force are what we expect in response to violence. We do not expect the hope that comes wrapped in compassion. But the unexpected comes filled with promise.

Hendrik Hart is ICS Professor Emeritus of Systematic Philosophy (1967-2001)