The Best Face of America

Center of Concern | Sun, Aug 28, 2011

By James E. Hug, S.J.
Source: Center of Concern

Reflection on 9/11/2001 published in Center Focus shortly after the attacks.  A pdf version is available below for download.

September 11, 2001
“The Best Face of America....”

In the paralyzing moments of terrorist cruelty, our lives were transformed.  The horrific images of hijacked passenger jets plunging into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in massive fireballs have seared our imaginations.  Our naive sense of Superpower invulnerability imploded in suffocating clouds of pulverized concrete and marble.  In this terrible, defining moment, who will we say to the world that we are?

Our answer will be lived more than spoken.  It is already emerging – in some images of incredible beauty, and some of alarming ugliness and racism.


We are a people graced with great love, heroism and courage.

Airline passengers knowing they were facing their deaths chose to use their final few moments to give voice to the love in their hearts. 

“I love you, Mom.” 

“Honey, . . . I love you.  Take care of the children.”

“I just wanted to let you know I love you and I hope to see you again.

If I don’t, please have fun in life

and live your life the best you can.

Know that I love you and no matter what, I’ll see you again.”

“Whatever decisions you make in your life, I need you to be happy, and I will respect any decisions that you make.” 

As one columnist noted, “None of the innocent passengers was reported phoning out with a cry for vengeance in the final calls.  Rather, those who got through as agony seized the world above and below sent plain words of love. . . .”   Words of love hauntingly reminiscent of the last words of Jesus as he commended his mother and his best friend to each other’s care and love.

Other airline passengers apparently chose to sacrifice their lives fighting to prevent the use of their plane as a deadly missile against another civilian target.  We’ll never know how many people are walking the streets and sharing love today because of the selfless heroism of those passengers.  The widow of one of them rejected the suggestion of vengeance, saying that as a mother with a child she is thinking of the mothers with children in the villages of Afghanistan threatened by U.S. retaliation and doesn’t want them to undergo the same kind of tragic suffering.

Firefighters, police and rescue workers rushed into the hellish inferno to pull out people trapped by the fire and cascading rubble.  Survivors are now telling stories of firefighters shielding people from walls of flame with their own bodies.

Volunteers from across the country converged on New York and Washington to sift through tons of rubble by hand, hauling it away in bucket brigades, searching in desperate hope for survivors.

Technicians in makeshift morgues and forensic laboratories have begun the painstaking, grisly and often hopeless task of identifying bodies to bring closure and perhaps just a little solace to the families and loved ones of the victims.

Across the country, thousands upon thousands of people have waited in line for hours to give of their own life blood in a gesture of hope to those who cling to survival.

The media have made these attacks and their aftermath a national experience, pulling us together as a people – and a global experience that has evoked incredible solidarity across cultures and faiths.  The news coverage has highlighted the heroism and selflessness of the aid workers.  It has personalized the suffering with names and faces and heart-rending stories.  It has helped the nation and the world face the reality of the tragedy and grieve it together.

Courageous voices have begun to challenge the instinctual outrage, calling for more careful, reasoned, focused and just forms of response.  Local Christian communities have reached out to their Arab and Islamic neighbors in prayerful solidarity and support.  Thousands of teachers, counselors and school officials have begun the slow, difficult, essential work of helping the young understand and deal with these events and the feelings they have given rise to.

Millions of individuals on the Internet have communicated messages of solidarity, condolence, love and guidance for healing and responding wisely to the watershed events which have changed our lives.

The New York Times noted beautifully in a September 15th editorial tribute to the rescue workers, “Pushing aside thoughts about their own personal safety and grief for fallen colleagues, they gave the world a vision of the valor and selflessness that is the best face of America.” [p. A22]  That is true of all of these images of grace and the many others that continue to come to light.  They are the best face of America. 

The stories and messages are healing and shaping our consciousness for a new future.  They are a shared contemplation of the tangible redemptive love of God’s Spirit among us.


At the same time, arising from the pain and the rubble of devastation, there are the temptations so characteristic of an apocalyptic moment.  They threaten our humanity and our very souls.

The federal government moved quickly to prepare for war.  Public rhetoric has been inflaming the spontaneous urge for revenge.  A crusade was declared against “Evil.”  Governments have been told they must choose between “us and them.”  Threats were made from the highest levels of national government of “ending” states that harbor terrorists or support terrorism.

Initial polls painted a picture in which over 90% of the U.S. public wanted military action and 75% supported war even if it meant civilian casualties abroad. The quiet, cold-blooded deception of the hijackers over several years is being unfolded in detail as their identities and lives are uncovered.  Enemies are being defined in one-dimensional portraits that leave no seeming alternative to violent retaliation. Some public commentators have reinforced the perception that politicians have no choice but to launch aggressive military responses.

Attacks on mosques, on innocent Arab-Americans and foreign nationals have broken out across the country.  Millions of innocent people in the U.S. feel threatened and are anxious for the safety of their loved ones because of the color of their skin or their religious beliefs.

We must insist in the most unequivocal terms we can find:


These are temptations we must resist.

IT IS POSSIBLE to refuse to respond to terrorism with terrorism.


that we not respond to an unspeakable crime against innocent people

with another unspeakable crime against other innocent people.

Mass Murder of innocent civilians is wrong in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania,

just as it was wrong in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden,

Rwanda and Burundi and the Balkans,

and just as it will be wrong in the form of indiscriminate retaliation

designed to ‘end’ states that support terrorism.

Attacks on innocent Arabs and Muslims anywhere because of the acts of terrorism

must be denounced widely and vehemently,

and prosecuted swiftly and severely for the crime they are:

Home-grown racist terrorism

that reflects the worst face of America and shames us as a people.



In times of crisis, the people of the U.S. spontaneously turn to their faiths for consolation, understanding, inspiration and guidance.  The nation was blanketed with prayer vigils and candle-light services.  We find strength from God and from each other in the prayer.

Perhaps the most consoling images of the week of September 11th, 2001, were the pictures of people of all faiths around the planet holding each other in the solidarity of tearful prayer.  These images of the world community at prayer are silent testimonies with an important message for us.  When we are tempted to divide the world into “us and them,” we need to recall the warning of President Abraham Lincoln during the most bloody war in U.S. history, “Remember, they pray to the same God as we do.”

The experience of one woman coming out of a Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, on Friday, September 14th, the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, is the treasure meant for each of us.  She turned in the elevator to say, “That was a beautiful ceremony.  I am much more peaceful.  The hatred I felt is gone.”


The selection of September 14th as the national day of prayer has special significance for all who share the liturgical calendar with the Catholic community.  September 14th is celebrated as the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross.  It is a unique, valuable and eerily providential context for understanding and responding to this national tragedy.

The cross is our preeminent religious symbol of the power of love to overcome death and redeem evil.  The terror of Christ’s suffering and death must not be softened by the gauze of centuries of distance or somehow minimized by our belief in resurrection.  The Christian symbol of the cross invites us to face real, painful loss at the hands of terrible evil and to proclaim without hesitation that God is love and love is the appropriate and most powerful response to evil.  The power of God’s love overcame death and sin.

To face the evil that has struck us honestly will require that we see beyond the immediate images of fire, rubble and broken bodies.  We will need to understand the degree of hatred and the extent of anti-U.S. feeling in the world that could have nurtured such devastating acts of terror.  Commentators in the leading national media have begun to raise questions about the role of the U.S. in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the devastating impact of the U.S.-led sanctions and ongoing bombing on innocent Iraqi civilians, the destructive influences of the current model of global economic integration on people and nations in poverty and on cultures that embrace values that conflict with Western industrial values. 

There will be many analyses in the weeks and months ahead – and many will have important elements of truth that will not be easy to face.  As The Wall Street Journal noted [September 14, 2001, p. A6], the realpolitik of U.S. foreign policy has seldom lived up to U.S. ideals.  In other words, U.S. policies too rarely present to the world the best face of America.


Honesty about the suffering and the evil behind it, however, is only the first stage in Christian contemplation of the cross.  We must watch and listen to Jesus on the cross if we want to be healed and to grasp the real depths of life.

It is hard to hear the words Jesus speaks against the roar of collapsing buildings and lives or the thunder of retaliating jets and missiles.  They are the gentle words relayed through the centuries – this time on cell phone signals: “Child, this is your mother.  Mother, this is your child. . . .  Abba, Father, Mother, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  On Easter there were no threats of righteous armies unleashed to destroy all those who had put Him on the cross.

Jesus did rise, though, to lead an assault on evil.  He did describe a strategy for retaliation that will require more patience and discipline, has more promise of success, and is more faithful to the best face of America than the military schemes being given such prominence.  He sent his forces to spread the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.  He insisted, “Love your enemies.  Do good to those who harm you.”

There are many ways to dismiss this message: as naive, unrealistic and romantic spiritualizing, as weakness in the face of terrorism or even a form of support for terrorists, as callous insensitivity to those who lost their lives and their loved ones, as misguided biblical fundamentalism, as a nice personal ideal that cannot withstand the harsh realities of a bitterly divided world laced with evil. . . .

It is difficult even to articulate it at a time like this.

But in the revealing light of this catastrophe, it is the only realistic response.  It is the only strategy capable of ending the spiral of terrorist suffering. U.S. military retaliation will give the terrorists martyrs and win sympathy, resources and recruits for their cause.  There can be no end to terrorism while the seed-beds of poverty and human degradation continue to nurture desperation and resentment.

We can end terrorism, though, if we can turn the courage, heroism, generosity, compassion and love that are the best face of America toward those buried in the tragedies of poverty and degradation everywhere on the planet and reach out to them.

This vision from the cross of Jesus resonates far beyond Christianity.  As people throughout the nation gathered in the churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, in meeting halls and store fronts, they heard words of grief and anguish, consolation and healing.  They heard calls for justice, not vengeance, for love, not hatred.  This is the faith-based instinct behind the best face of America.

This faith-based energy and vision must not be overshadowed in the idolizing of markets or the naive reliance on military power.  They must be channeled into compassionate heroism reaching out to all the victims of violence, poverty, hunger, disease and discrimination in the human family.  As terrible as they are, the human community’s worst problems would all be solvable if we turned this best face of America toward them and used our political capital to form the necessary coalitions to address them with effective compassion.

It would be tragic beyond anything we have already seen if that faith-based energy and vision fell victim to the terrorism of September 11th or to a misguided realpolitik that resorted to terror and violence in our national response. 

It will take the courageous leadership of each and every one of us to redeem this moment of national suffering.

It will take the gift of God’s Spirit to discover in this defining moment the grace of a new energy for global solidarity.

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