One very important thing that has too often been overlooked whenever 9/11 comes to mind is that it happened at a point in time when modernity had already given way to postmodernity. Following the footsteps of her European counterparts at the other side of the Western world, America was then going through a postmodern socio-cultural mega-shift.
On that awful day of September 11, 2001, when the airplanes hijacked by Muslim fundamentalists-turned-terrorists hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, all that modernity had in the West were the residues of its technology and its Enlightenment-inspired institutions. As the death-of-God prophet Friedrich Nietzsche predicted shortly before the dawn of the 20th century, a great proportion of the Western world at that very moment had already “gone mad!” This Western madness became evident right then and there, or, at the very least, a few moments after America felt the gravity of the terrorist attacks.
The sudden lost of moral categories in postmodernity
The social and moral categories that used to guide the West since its inception of the Judeo-Christian faith in medieval times were then being replaced, albeit gradually, and at times quietly, by something else right in the classrooms of the academic centers of the West, not to mention what had already been happening daily in the studios of Hollywood and the rock music industry. Its result: many philosophers and theologians, sociologists and political analysts, artists and musicians, writers and journalists, all of a sudden, could no longer think and speak the way they used to.
So that when that horrible day of 9/11 came, as if by surprise (though it should not have been so according to a number of intelligence reports), many of the so-called elitist thinkers of the West could no longer respond accordingly. The moral vacuum put forth by the postmodern intellectual machinery suddenly surfaced. Tamed by the postmodern mood of the hour, devoid of absolute moral point of reference, they just could not speak pointedly against it and call it evil in the strongest sense that they could afford to say.
That was not so during the World War II when moral absolutes, though not having gone unchallenged through centuries, were still in place. American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, did not hesitate to call the crimes Adolph Hitler and his Nazi cohorts committed against humanity as they were – evil. Paul Tillich, a German-American liberal theologian and existentialist philosopher, did the same, calling their crimes in no uncertain terms as “wickedness,” “sin,” “anti-Christ.” The German Lutheran pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer followed suit and did not think twice to join these voices against the whims of countless others who were deceived by Hitler and so acted mindlessly under his spell (most, if not all, of whom, mind you, were German Christians – Catholics and Protestants).
But what of the postmodern-infested thinkers of our time? Why did they hesitate to call 9/11 simply as it is – evil? Doing so is too judgmental by far, so they claim. Besides, they believe that it would go against the socio-cultural convention of the day – tolerance. But tolerance for whose sake?
So laments British social critic Os Guinness:
The event of September 11 hit America and the West at large at a time when intellectual and moral responses to evil are weaker, more controversial and more confused than they have ever been for centuries. Put simply, we no longer have a shared understanding whether there is such a thing as evil. Some even question whether it is proper to speak of anyone as our enemy. The consequences of our uncertainty damage us on all sorts of levels.
It must be noted that this sudden lost of moral categories came into place during the wake of what sociologist par excellence Peter Berger calls as the de-secularization of the West. Religion was then being said to have eventually emerged triumphantly over the forces of secularization and modernization, which also gave way for postmodernism to find its home in Western society.
Religion at the heart of the evils of 9/11
Lying at the heart of the evils of 9/11 is religion. As Matthew J. Morgan, editor of the book The Impact of 9/11 on Religion and Philosophy, puts it,
At its heart, 9/11 was a religious event. This assertion applies both to the causes and the consequences of the attacks. The central cause for the attacks was a serious increase in religiously motivated violence throughout the previous decade. The attacks have had effects that have reverberated across many dimensions of human life … politics and war, economics, the law, the media and the arts, and psychology and education. When evaluating the human impact, our spiritual responses and coping methods are the most immediate and fundamental of these various areas.
On that very day, a monstrous crime was committed not just against so-called Christian America by Muslim terrorists, and not only against liberal democracy, as then President George W. Bush decried it, but against all of humanity, religious or otherwise. Here was a crime committed against those who still believe in everything that accords with love, peace, freedom, truth, goodness, justice – those absolute moral categories about which postmodernity, with its radical relativism and anti-foundationalism, has nothing to do whatsoever.
No, it was not the Muslim religion per se that is to blame. Neither is it the Judeo-Christian religion that is to be counted as its sole victim. All of humanity was then massacred, so to speak. Humanity was massacred by humanity.
But the central issue of it all goes beyond this massacre and all the other the evils of 9/11. For at the other side of it were the heroism of many in response to the terrorist attacks, the sudden rise of patriotism in the heart and mind of not a few Americans, and their return to their religious roots, which reminded them not to answer evil with evil, but to love even the worst of their enemies, to do good to them who do them harm and to pray for them who persecute them while maintaining the rule of the law in pursuit of justice.
This, however, lasted for only a moment, after which everything almost immediately became business as usual. As evangelical theologian David Wells puts it,
There is the fact that for all of the talk about how America changed after this event, there remains an uneasy sense that American culture is actually little different from what it was before – that it still is morally and spiritually adrift, and in this it is no different from the other Western countries.
Therein lie the evils of 9/11. They must first be defined in moral, spiritual and theological terms. Following the biblical account of human history, theologians have them all summed up in one simple yet too terrible a term – human depravity.
To deny it would sooner or later make us cowards, for it takes more than an ounce of courage to face what it has made of us. To claim otherwise, that we humans are by nature basically and inherently good, that all that it takes to get our problems fixed is by way of education, proper training, discipline, and, depending on the degree of the problem, psychotherapy, is to miss the lesson of both history and personal experience. That’s what many of us had missed on that horrible day of 9/11.
- Guinness, Os. Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005.
- Morgan, Matther J., ed. The Impact of 9/11 on Religion and Philosophy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
- Wells, David F. Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.