It’s 9/11/2014. Thirteen years ago, our country experienced the horror of an attack on the United States by terrorists, something unprecedented for most of us. Many innocent lives were lost. Many families lost loved ones. They’re on TV today, the loved ones of those who died, once again reading the names of the lives lost on that infamous day, lives that factored so largely for them. This practice is consistent with our initial commitment shortly after 9/11 that we would “never forget.” As one reporter commented this morning, “time doesn’t heal all wounds.” I agree. The survivors of the tragedy of 9/11, whose lives have been forever altered by the thoughtless, selfish and even “evil” acts of others who decided that their loved ones didn’t matter, still show clear signs of grief and trauma. They haven’t forgotten and I’m not sure how forgiveness of the terrorists who killed their deeply missed ones factors into their future ability to move on and have a meaningful life.
Is it healthy for these survivors and families who lost loved ones to reflect on the events of that day and to acknowledge the remaining feelings of anger and sadness that they still feel? Shouldn’t they just “get over it” and “move on,” especially if they are “Christians?” A day like today and the strong feelings that most of us have about the events of 9/11 evokes feelings in most of us that are inconsistent with the thoughts and advice we glibly offer to victims of trauma. We tell victims of sexual abuse or rape or domestic violence that they are required to forgive. The wife who forgives her abusive husband again guarantees that the cycle of violence will continue to repeat itself. The child who forgives the sexual abuse of a caretaker who has violated their trust creates the opportunity for the cycle to continue. The staff member who covers up the abuse of their former senior pastor does nothing to stop the cycle from repeating with others.
So, which is it? Do we forgive and forget? Or, do we not forget and remember so that we don’t simply allow these things to continue happening? Do we still hold the terrorists accountable? Or, do we give them a pass? When we hold two contradictory thoughts that cannot be reconciled, it is called cognitive dissonance. We feel anxiety, not being able to make sense of things. To reduce dissonance, we typically revise one of the “truths” to make things less uncomfortable. My question today is, “Do you still feel anger about what the terrorists did to our country and to the families that were directly and personally impacted?” If so, how do you reconcile that with your approach to other similar situations where innocent people suffer at the hands of evildoers? How do you reduce the dissonance? In both cases, those who did what they did often show no signs of remorse and would do it again if given the opportunity.
Today is a good day to remember the reality that actions have consequences. We need to understand that being nice to others doesn’t mean that they will respond in kind (I fear that President Obama doesn’t understand this principle.). Removing personal accountability from our interpersonal relationships doesn’t create a better or a safer world. We may need to be reminded that overlooking serious offenses does not solve the problem. It doesn’t prevent future offenses from occurring. It doesn’t validate the damage that has been done to those on the receiving end in the past. It leaves victims with an abiding sense of injustice and sets them up to get stuck in complicated and unresolved grief. To make things worse, we add to the pain they already feel by telling them they need to “forgive” and “forget.” Do you feel comfortable telling the people at ground zero today to forgive the now deceased Osama bin Laden? If you’re not comfortable doing that, why is it so easy to tell a woman that was sexually abused by her father or grandfather to “forgive” him now that he’s gone? When he was living, he never acknowledged the reality of what he had done. He denied her the validation that her pain was real in response to actual events. He made her feel that she was somehow responsible for what “never happened.” Now, we glibly tell her to “forgive” him.
As for me, I identify with the sorrow and despair of those who have suffered and been so deeply impacted by the evil of others. I don’t struggle with mixed feelings about how I feel about them or about those who have perpetrated acts against them. If they’re angry today as they reflect on what happened, I don’t condemn them for feeling that way. In the same way, I identify with and support those who have suffered at the hands of other kinds of “terrorists.” Those who have been terrorized by the destructive acts of those they trusted, who still feel a deep sense of anger or betrayal and struggle daily with trying to move on with life in the aftermath, only evoke empathy in me. Is this somehow inconsistent with the character or commandments of God?