A Lament for Our People

Scott Wright


By Scott Wright*

"Let my eyes overflow with tears night and day without ceasing; for my virgin daughter — my people — has suffered a grievous wound, a crushing blow."
— Jeremiah 14:17

Today we grieve: for the victims and their families; for the nation and for the world. What happened September 11 tore a hole, not only in the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but in our nation's soul. Time and again we have watched the terrifying images of planes crashing into buildings and exploding in flames. We have "suffered a grievous wound, a crushing blow," we struggle to find some shred of life in the ashes, and to rebuild our lives and nation together. Our world has changed.

We join with the families of the victims and the survivors of the September 11 attacks to mourn. We express our deepest compassion for the families, and our indignation at such a massive use of violence against innocent people. In an instant, more than six thousand people are "missing" or dead. We see their faces posted in city parks and newspapers and television screens, we hear their voices and final desperate words, and we struggle to fathom the immensity of suffering and evil. We ourselves have changed.

We join with people of all religious and humanitarian traditions to call for justice, not vengeance; for restraint, not retaliation. Nine days of mourning have passed. All across New York and Washington, indeed the nation and world, thousands of vigil lights dot the sidewalks and parks, strewn with flowers and pictures of loved ones: fathers holding babies, mothers pregnant with life, young newlyweds. We cannot bear so much pain; nor can we bear more pain as we watch our nation prepare for war.


"If I go into the country, I see those slain by the sword; if I go into the city, I see the ravages of famine. Both prophet and priest have gone to a land they know not."
— Jeremiah 14:18 The tragedy that touched our people September 11 is not just a national tragedy, it is a world tragedy, a tragedy of the human family. A line was crossed, not for the first time, revealing the immense capacity of human beings to do evil to one another, and on top of that, to call it good. No violence is good, and no war is holy. The twentieth century has taught us that the majority of casualties in war are civilians. Violence begets violence, and war begets terrorism, bringing with it immense suffering and destruction in its wake. As one witness to the destruction and evil of the twentieth century, Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, remarked, "the truth is in the ashes."

Many commentators compared what happened September 11 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, though the casualties of the World Trade Center were twice as high and the victims were civilians, not military personnel. By the time the war ended, Japanese and German war crimes and aggression were met by Allied saturation bombings of cities in Germany and Japan, ending with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki four years later. Once the destructive consequences of modern war are unleashed, the consequences in terms of human suffering and destruction are far beyond what we first imagined. The truth is in the ashes.

The tragedy that occurred September 11 is a tragedy of the human family, a world at odds with itself, where billions struggle to survive. Globalization has brought our world together as never before; it has also widened the gulf between rich and poor. For the majority of the world's population, "quality of life" means survival. It means dying young, watching your children die from lack of potable water or lack of medicines or lack of food. It means eking out a living in the countryside, migrating to the sweatshops of the metropolitan areas, and crossing borders to seek employment in the North. It means fleeing the myriad number of wars across the globe, living as refugees or displaced peoples or strangers, and adopting a life of permanent insecurity and exile.

We are at a crossroads. We must learn to live together on this planet or we will surely perish together. We still have a choice: "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Will we choose wisely as a nation? Will we choose life?


"Have you rejected Judah completely? Do you despise Zion? Why have you afflicted us so that we cannot be healed? We hoped for peace but no good came, for a time of healing but there is only terror."
— Jeremiah 14:19

Perhaps no one is untouched by what happened September 11. Those who died are a cross-section of New York and Washington, certainly, but also of our nation and world. They came from all walks of life, and dozens of countries around the world. Whether or not we know some one who died in the attack, or one of the surviving family members, we identify with the victims. Their faces — black, brown, yellow, red, white — are our faces, and the faces of our mothers and fathers, our children, our loved ones.

All of us are, in some sense, survivors; and all of us, in some way, feel shock, denial, anger, helpless and abandoned. We, too, have experienced the trauma radiating out in expanding circles from what has now come to be known as "Ground Zero" in New York. We, too, know the fear of what could happen in the future as the spiral of violence continues spiraling out of control. We are all in need of healing.

Where do we look for wisdom and strength right now? We look to the poor.

As people of faith who have accompanied the poor and dispossessed in a diversity of struggles for justice and peace, for equality and for life, we have come to know in a very deep and personal way their sufferings and their joys, their compassion for those worse off than themselves and their passion for justice, their struggle to reveal the truth about their lives and their hope for the future.

Our faith traditions teach us that all life is holy. Can we broaden our compassion to include victims around the world, and potential victims of a war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, or in other countries of the Middle East where the immense majority of people are desperately poor? What will we do when we begin to see the faces and hear the cries of the first victims of US military strikes? Every precision strike carries with it "collateral damage," and we have learned to see our own face in the face of the victims, our own child in the child who has become a victim, our own pain as parents in the grieving mother or father who has suddenly become our "enemy."

In times of hardship and crisis, we are a generous people. We witness with pride the outpouring of support, the firefighters and police who gave their lives, the workers and volunteers digging through the debris each day, people far and wide who made donations of blood and food. But in times of war we can also become an insulated people, finding an "enemy" in any face that is different than our own, and looking to violence as the only answer. We witness with shame the — up until now — isolated attacks on persons of Middle Eastern or Arab descent and the temptation to demonize entire peoples and faiths different from our own. We need to be vigilant to protect the lives of all persons, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. All life is holy.


"O Lord, we acknowledge our wickedness and the guilt of our fathers; we have indeed sinned against you. For the sake of your name do not despise us; do not dishonor your glorious throne. Remember your covenant with us and do not break it."
— Jeremiah 14:20-1

We have lived through too many wars in our lifetime. "The whole creation has been groaning... right up to the present time" (Romans 8:22-23). But going to war need not be our only choice. Already there are voices counseling restraint. Family members of the victims of the September 11 attack have raised their voices, calling on our nation to end the cycle of violence. One mother whose son died in the attack on the World Trade Center cried out, "Not in my son's name." And a lonely voice in Congress cast the sole dissenting vote against giving the President a "blank check" to wage a war against terrorism. Can we learn from them?

Do we really know what a long-term unrestrained war against terrorism will do to our people, or to people around the world? Will it not fan the flames and risk provoking another attack on our nation? Or worse yet, become the very thing we are fighting? Gandhi said it so well: "An eye for an eye only makes the world more blind." On the other hand, if we do nothing, will we not risk encouraging similar acts of terrorist violence in the future. So what do we do?

Let us listen to the voices of our religious traditions. In a statement put out by Pax Christi USA, the way is clear: "The perpetrators need to be brought to justice. But we have to distinguish between justice and violence.... Distinctions must be made between the guilty and the innocent, between the perpetrators and the civilians who may surround them, between those who commit atrocities and those who many simply share their religion or political points of view. Justice must be targeted toward those who are guilty and must be done according to the rule of law."

If we want to eliminate terrorism in the world, we must address the root causes of violence in the world. "Terrorism will end when all nations great and small adhere to and are accountable to international law. As long as the strong can lord it over the weak, terrorism will be the choice of the disenfranchised."

On top of one of the sheets hung along a fence in Washington Square in New York, above the vigil lights, flowers and pictures of the "missing," is scrawled this question: "What did we do for this to happen?" That is the right question to ask right now. That is the most honest question to ask, whether in sheer desperation or with conviction. Until we address the roots of the desperation and misery and exclusion in the world, we will never be victorious in a war against terrorism. Because that misery, while it can never justify terrorism under any circumstances, is what feeds it. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution — and terrorism — inevitable.


"Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, O Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this."
— Jeremiah 14:22

"Every crisis is an opportunity." These words are scribbled on another sheet hung on a fence in New York. The opportunity before us is to address the roots of violence in the world, as well as to ask what is the responsibility we share as a nation for the terrible gulf between rich and poor, for the poverty and misery in which billions are condemned to live, for the exclusion and the violence against people simply because they look differently, speak differently, think differently, or profess another faith like Islam.

There is a phrase in Latin America: "No hay dolor ajeno." "No pain is foreign to us." What happened September 11 can either be an opportunity, from the pain we feel as a nation, to share the pain of so many other people around the world and within our own country — people who are poor, who are excluded, who have lost loved ones to poverty, to violence, to war — or it can be an opportunity to allow our pain to be used to inflict pain on others. The choice is ours to make.

We need to mourn, to comfort, to share the anger and indignation that our people feel as a result of the attack on September 11. Our anger is justified. We do need to be vigilant. But we must also be prepared to dissent to the extent that our nation's response declares war on entire populations, kills innocent civilians, unleashes attacks against Arab Americans and Middle Easterners, curtails civil liberties, or ignores the roots causes of violence.

Some government officials are already asking, "Are we prepared to give up our civil liberties in order to fight this war?" The question ought to be, "Are we prepared to give up our immense wealth and consumer life-style in order to redistribute it according to the world's needs? Are we prepared to work for a more just global economic order that meets the needs of the immense majority of the world's people who are poor?"

We can eliminate the foreign debt that weighs so heavily upon the poor nations of the world. We can restructure trade agreements to be fair and equitable and ensure that every poor nation has the capacity to feed itself and to develop its natural and human resources. We can eliminate racism and discrimination and xenophobia from our planet, and we can even eliminate war and violence. And if we cannot eliminate racism and war entirely, we can at least make them less tolerable by refusing to condone them, and limiting their expression and impact through international law and sanctions.

As our nation prepares to fight "the first war of the twenty-first century," we need to place our hopes with the poor, the dispossessed, with the rainbow spectrum of community and grassroots organizations around the world and the global South such as those who met in Porto Alegre, Brazil last January in the World Social Forum to declare, "Another world is possible."

But we will need much courage to do all this: to hope against hope, to practice justice, to love compassionately, and to choose life.

It is once more "a time to break silence," before it is too late, and heed the words of one of our nation's prophets, Martin Luther King, when he spoke out against the Vietnam War: "I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values... A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies... A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily at the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth... We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now... We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."

Another world is possible. War is not the answer. All life is holy. The truth is in the ashes, in the victims, in the wounds that cry out for healing, in the tears that yearn for that day when: "God will wipe away every tear. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Revelations 21:4).

September 20, 2001

* Scott Wright is cocoordinator of EPICA: Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean.