In the Darkness, I can still see America the Beautiful

9/1/11, art, coronavirus, Faith, Fear, Forgiveness, grief, Healing, Holy Spirit, instagram, Ministry, nature, pandemic, photography, purpose, Racism, renewal, Spirituality, vision

On a long ago Monday morning, I had no other pressing issues on my mind other than “More coffee and swing by the local garage for a new battery for the church van.” That’s what happens when a simple van doesn’t come with automatic headlights. When I arrived inside the church, I was greeted by the shocked looks of folks gathered around the radio. “Preacher, the Pentagon has fallen and the Twin Towers in New York have collapsed.”

I was aghast and speechless. I went to the garage, where I knew the TV and the coffee would be on, plus the old boys gathered there would be in the know. I’d kill two birds with one stone. “I’ll be back soon. If folks want to pray, tell them I’ll be here by noon.”

Some Mondays require more coffee than others.

Some churches are family centered, so they want to gather at home and hug their loved ones tight at times of crisis. Other groups don’t have family nearby, so they gather together to offer one another comfort in times of grief. I stayed at the church that afternoon and was there for the strangers who noticed our light and stoped on their sojourn along the highway of life. God meets us where we are.

Right Wing Violence Growing in America
Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City Federal Center Bombing in 1995, which killed 165 people and injured 500 others, and was first blamed on Middle Eastern terrorists, was the second-most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history, except for September 11, 2001.

I mention it because although Americans have always found the “bad guys/others/scapegoats” as worthy of our nationalistic scorn, but homegrown far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Still, right-wing attacks and plots have accounted for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years.

When we remember our friends and fellow citizens who lost their lives in the 2001 attacks, we also must take a moment of silence for the citizens of our world who also lost their lives. 9/11 was by far the worst terrorist attack in American history with 2,977 victims (excluding the 19 perpetrators). While the attacks were aimed at the United States, 372 foreign nationals from 61 countries were also victims. Why is this important? Nearly two decades ago, America saw herself as a leader among nations, rather than as a nation behind a wall, alone. We went to war, not only to avenge our “honor” and take “retribution for our loss,” but also to “make the world a safer place in which to live.”

Citizens Lost at 911 from Nations in Blue

War Against Terror and the Axis of Evil
Before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a new approach to foreign policy in response to 9/11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Bush declared that the United States considered any nation that supported terrorist groups a hostile regime. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush called out an “Axis of Evil” consisting of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, and he declared all a threat to American security.

I remember how full our church was the Sunday after September 11, 2001. Each person there wanted to know what their pastor would say about the one, true, Christian response to the attack, and where a person of faith should stand on war that was surely coming. I’m sure my people were surprised I didn’t tell them there was only one true way, but several paths Christians across the centuries have faithfully chosen. Thinking for yourself by using the Scripture, the traditions of the church, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the struggle we people of faith are called to make.

Why are we building walls?
Since that fateful day, we’ve thrown up a wall of sorts on our southern border. While it was supposed to be a “big beautiful wall, like you’ve never seen before, from coast to coast,” the truth of it is Trump has promised to build at least 500 miles of new fencing by early next year, but his administration has completed only about 110 miles so far.

Cactus felled to make way for the wall

Nearly all of the new fencing the Trump administration has built so far is considered “replacement” fencing, swapping out smaller, older vehicle barriers for a more elaborate — and costly — “border wall system.” The administration has been slowed because building new barriers where none currently exist requires the acquisition of private land, and many owners don’t want to sell. They would lose access to all of their land by selling a portion. Even with the slated construction goals, most of the southern border will not have a man-made barrier, since the terrain is considered too tough to traverse.

Big Walls Make Bad Neighbors
Where building has occurred, the neighbors haven’t been happy. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery were brought up to the edge of the Oregon Pipe National Monument outside Tucson. There the crews also detonated bedrock to lay the barrier’s foundation. Crews removed cactus and other plant life near the international wildlife preserve to make way for access roads, which Border Patrol say are needed to enhance security. The Army Corps of Engineers in February conducted a series of controlled blasts along a sacred Native American heritage site known as Monument Hill.

These are just a few of the indignities to our natural resources, our environment, and our Native American peoples in the mad dash to protect the country from “marauding caravans.” Remember the caravans? So 2019—they were last year’s scapegoats. The people to fear this year are “people of color who are coming for your suburbs, led by Corey Gardner and the Democrats!”

Good Walls Make Good Neighbors
Of course, if artists and architects from both Mexico and America had collaborated to design the wall it might have been more welcoming as cultural destination. In fact it might have been a money maker for tourism on both sides of the border, but who cares about money in these days?

Architects’ rendering of Border Cultural Destination

Truth and Lies
I grew up in the Deep South back in the awful days when governors stood in school house doors to prevent black children from attending classes with white kids. I thought America today was better than this. While Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful and the vast majority of demonstration events associated with the BLM movement are non-violent, unfortunately disinformation campaigns have convinced some that the opposite is true.

However, in more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the BLM movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity. Peaceful protests have been reported in over 2,400 distinct locations around the country. Violent demonstrations, meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations — under 10% of the areas that experienced peaceful protests.

Right-wing Extremism
Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019. In addition, right-wing extremism accounted for over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020. Second, terrorism in the United States will likely increase over the next year in response to several factors. One of the most concerning is the 2020 U.S. presidential election, before and after which extremists may resort to violence, depending on the outcome of the election. Far-right and far-left networks have used violence against each other at protests, raising the possibility of escalating violence during the election period.

Between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. Overall, right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority—57 percent—of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.

The Truth Will Set You Free
All terrorism feeds off lies, conspiracies, disinformation, and hatred. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi urged individuals to practice what he called “satyagraha,” or truth force. “Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatever; and it always insists upon truth,” he explained. That advice is just as important as it has ever been in the United States.

Mahatma Gandhi practiced Satyagraha or “holding onto truth, ” to designate an attitude of determined but nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi’s satyagraha became a major tool in the Indian struggle against British imperialism and has since been adopted by protest groups in other countries. Jesus was fond of saying, “The truth will set you free.”

Tribute to the Victims of Foreign Terrorism
In this 19th anniversary of the Tribute to the Victims of Foreign Terrorism, I wonder if it’s not time to rethink this memorial. The loved ones deserve to be remembered, the brave responders need to be honored, but we need to come to grips with the pain and agonies within our own greater community. The Pandemic has revealed structural inequalities that have been built over generations. Just as our interstate highway system was a great infrastructure project of the 1950’s, but we’ve driven on orange barrel roadways ever since because no one in congress has the will to spend the money on the concrete the people use. Instead they give giant tax breaks to corporations with the thought the money will “trickle down” to those below. When it doesn’t, they try again, thinking “It’ll work THIS TIME.” Now we need to address the cracks in our country and mend our brokenness.

One image depicts a magnificent wall of musical organ pipes, 30 feet tall, punctuated with openings every 20 feet allowing people to pass through. Photo: JM Design Studio

Revisioning and Reimagining Due to the Pandemic
For the first time since 2002, the annual Tribute in Light—the dual beams of light that commemorates the victims of the September 11th terror attacks—will go dark. The organizers, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which manages the installation at the Battery Parking Garage in Lower Manhattan, made the difficult decision, citing the health risks of the pandemic. After consultations, the museum concluded, “the health risks during the pandemic were far too great for the large crew—30 technicians, electricians, and stagehands—required over ten days to produce the annual Tribute in Light.” The twin pillars of light, which can be seen up to 60 miles away, became a fixture following the second anniversary of the attacks.

Birds and Moths caught in the 911 lights

The lights, featuring eight-eight 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs are placed in two 48-foot squares, but they are directly in the path of migrating birds. The convergence creates a spectacle that is eerily beautiful, yet according to one study, endangers some 160,000 birds a year, starkly illustrating the perils of humans and animals sharing an urban ecosystem. The tiring detour through the beams of light can put birds at risk of starvation or injury to populations already threatened by light pollution, collisions with buildings, habitat destruction and climate change. To solve the problem, the lights are switched on and off at twenty minute intervals. This allows the birds to reorient themselves and safely travel on. Otherwise, the light lures them in, and the glass windows of the buildings finish them off.

The pandemic and social distancing has also forced the museum to scale back the commemorative ceremony on September 11th, including a live reading of all 9/11 and 1993 bombing victims that has traditionally been conducted by victims’ family members. A recording from the museum’s “In Memoriam” exhibition will be used instead to minimize the risk of exposure to families visiting that day.

September 11 Victim Compensation Fund
From 2001 to 2004, over $7 billion dollars in compensation was given to families of the 9/11 victims and the 2,680 people injured in the attacks. Funding was renewed on January 2, 2011, when President Barack Obama signed The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act into law, which was named for James Zadroga, a New York City Police officer who died rescuing survivors. In 2015, funding for the treatment of 9/11-related illness, was renewed for five more years at a total of $7.4 billion.

The Victim Compensation Fund was set to stop accepting claims in December 2020. On July 29, 2019, President Trump signed a law authorizing support for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund through 2092. Previously, administrators had cut benefits by up to 70 percent as the $7.4 billion fund depleted. Vocal lobbyists for the fund included Jon Stewart, 9/11 first responder John Feal and retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 responder Luis Alvarez, who died of cancer 18 days after testifying before Congress.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Americans have a notoriously short attention span. We’re given to the latest fads. Once upon a time goldfish swallowing was all the rage, as was stuffing telephone booths (we don’t even have those anymore), and planking. Oh my. I remember piling into VW bugs in the early 60’s with the school chum who had a convertible. She got bonus points because we could stack the most petite of our friends on our shoulders in a tower. Photo op for yearbook. With social media and 24 hour news channels, a story can be here today and gone tomorrow. If we were upset at the Tide challenge one day, the cinnamon challenge follow hot on its heels. The next challenge will be how tidy your sock drawer is, and you’ll experience excruciating pandemic pain that you’ve lost the last six months of your life with an untidy dresser.

Final Thoughts
If we are to fight wars, let them be for just causes, with proportional responses against armed aggressors, but not against civilians. Let’s not stand alone against the world, but link arms with allies who share our values of democracy, self-government, and freedom. Let’s also care for the most vulnerable among us and unite with the nations of the world to protect the environment, for all of us are endangered by climate change and pollution.

If the “lights are out” on 9/11, perhaps we can use the darkness to look inside our hearts for the future path forward. If we take a healing path, we can dedicate it to everyone who has lost their life in the America that was before, and then we can build for their descendants the America they have always dreamed of and hoped for: America the Beautiful.

ANSEL ADAMS: Ruins of Old Church, ca 1929, printed 1977

September 11 Tribute Light Goes Dark in 2020
https://gothamist.com/news/911-tribute-in-light-wont-shine-in-2020-a-first-in-18-years

Oklahoma City Bombing
https://www.publicradiotulsa.org/post/ap-was-there-oklahoma-city-bombing-story

George W. Bush: Foreign Affairs | Miller Center
https://millercenter.org/president/gwbush/foreign-affairs

The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States | Center for Strategic and International Studies
https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states

Timeline of September 11 events
https://www.govtech.com/em/safety/Timeline-of-How-the-Tragic-Events-Unfolded-on-Sept-11-2001.html

Brilliant Maps
https://brilliantmaps.com/9-11-victims/

Border wall construction plows through southwestern US undeterred by COVID-19 – ABC News
https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/border-wall-construction-plows-southwestern-us-undeterred-covid/story?id=70649546

Washington Post Deep Dive on Government Wall Documents
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/immigration/border-wall-progress/

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project
https://acleddata.com/special-projects/us-crisis-monitor/

ACLED collects real-time data on the locations, dates, actors, fatalities, and types of all reported political violence and protest events across Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia & the Caucasus, Latin America & the Caribbean, and Southeastern & Eastern Europe & the Balkans.

The US Crisis Monitor is a joint project of ACLED and BDI, the Bridging Divides Initiative of Princeton University. Through this project, ACLED is able to extend its global methodology to conduct data collection for the US, making real-time data available for public use, while BDI is able to use these data to identify emerging risks and to inform and motivate policy and programming discussions within its civil society network.

Designs for Trump’s Border Wall. https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/2086420/designs-trumps-powerful-mexico-border-wall-include

The 9/11 Tribute Lights Are Endangering 160,000 Birds a Year
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/09/nyregion/911-tribute-birds.html?referringSource=articleShare

September 11 Victim Compensation Fund
https://www.vcf.gov/

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