And so do we.
As the dual towers fell, our collective soul collapsed with them. As one-fifth of the Pentagon burned, so did our rage. We had never seen anything like it before, not in real life anyway. Our voyeuristic captivation with the TV images gradually gave way to the awful realization that, unlike the computerized effects in a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick, those buildings and airplanes held living people—living people whose last moments were recorded before our very eyes.
Then we witnessed the footage of Middle Eastern exultation. We saw men and women cheering and praising Allah for our misfortune. We saw the Associated Press photo of the young Palestinian boy, dressed in a Spider-Man T-shirt, firing a rifle into the air in anti-American celebration. We saw the enemy, and they were Muslim.
The Days After
In the wake of America's darkest morning, we are a closer nation. People are smiling at each other more this week. Commuters seem nicer on the roads. Busy folks seem more intentional about making eye contact. Across the country, people are lining up in droves to donate blood. Stores are selling out of American flags. Young men—and women—are flocking to local military recruiting offices, prepared to enlist. Once again, a national tragedy has stirred our courage and compassion.
In this atmosphere, issues like reparations for slavery—a hot topic just a week earlier—are suddenly forgotten. In fact, our traditional areas of cultural antagonism—black vs. white, Democrat vs. Republican, prolife vs. prochoice—seem a million debates away. Right now we are simply Americans: one nation, under God, indivisible.
But are we really? Amid the rush of patriotism and solidarity, there is also ugliness. In cities big and small across the U.S., a constant stream of disturbing reports has revealed a sturdy anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment rising from frustrated—and usually white—Americans. There have been death threats phoned and e-mailed to local mosques. In Washington, D.C., two bricks were thrown through the window of an Islamic bookstore; one brick was wrapped with a note: "Death to Arab Murderers." Worshipers at a Brooklyn mosque were rattled from their prayer time by a man outside shouting, "Murderers." In Chicago, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a Muslim school in the early-morning hours; a noisy group of young adults marched in front of a mosque yelling anti-Arab insults; a gas-station attendant of Moroccan descent was assaulted by a raving hothead with a machete. In this hostile climate, all you have to do is look the part to be targeted.
On one Chicago talk-radio show, a gentle-sounding female caller poignantly shared her sadness over the events of the week before digressing into a xenophobic rant. "We need to take a serious look at revoking visas and cutting off any further immigration into our country," she said.
Though the media have been quick to include calls for tolerance and level-headedness in their coverage of the terrorist attacks, some have actually helped to fuel the smoldering outrage. The San Francisco Examiner, for instance, printed the headline "BASTARDS!" across its Wednesday-morning edition. The editor claimed that it was an attempt to get at the visceral emotion so many Americans were feeling, and the paper definitely grabbed readers' attention. But such calculated sensationalism inevitably shifts people's moods away from healthy moral indignation to the more vicious variety. Indeed, it will encourage some people to seek out a concrete target for their ire.
Divided by Rage
Michael Emerson, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston, is worried about these types of reactions. On Tuesday morning, he and his students abandoned the agenda for their Sociology of Religion class to watch live coverage of the terrorist attacks. Two Muslim students are members of the class. That morning they were visibly shaking.
"In addition to the shock from the immense tragedy of the event, they were frightened for their own safety," Emerson says. "One of the students, a young woman of Egyptian descent, said, 'It was bad enough when Oklahoma City happened, but this is so much bigger.' She's fearful on campus. She's fearful for just being in the U.S. And she doesn't understand the prejudice she's experienced, because she supports America."
Emerson has spent several years probing the dynamics of racial categorizations in America. His recent book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, was the result of extensive research of white Christian attitudes towards African Americans and other minority groups. He says the impulse to label and scapegoat a group of people is common, especially in extraordinary situations like this.
"The same thing happened with Japanese Americans during World War II," he explains. "In that case, we didn't just hurl insults at them, we put them into concentration camps. It's the same thing now. There's a general sense of what an American is, and that is typically people of European descent. Even nonwhites will often, on some level, possess that belief. We implicitly buy into the idea that all nonwhite people are essentially just allowed to be here—until there's a problem, and then all of sudden it's 'You're not an American; you're an Arab who happens to be in America."
Emerson realizes that the people who actually act out of these distorted notions are on the extreme fringes of society. But so are the Muslim terrorists who wreaked havoc on our nation, he says. "From the perspective of the majority group, it's easy to say, 'Oh, it's only a few ignorant people; it's not a big deal.' But it's a huge deal from the perspective of those minority groups who are being targeted."
For Emerson, dealing with his anger over these events in a "Christian way" has meant turning the focus away from his own emotions and making a commitment to reach out to Muslims and Arabs who are now feeling alienated in their own communities. It's a need the church can fill, he says. "One way for us to respond is to reach out to these people, to let them know that we're behind them, that they do not have to be afraid."
Overcoming the Fear Factor
"This one is going to be hard to let go of." That's how a friend of mine described his emotions over the deadly assault on our nation. He is not alone. Many usually even-tempered Christian men and women are finding it difficult to feel anything but reciprocal wrath for the individuals who engineered and executed the gruesome attacks.
The anger is real—tangibly so. The question for us, though, is how we should process it in a healthy way. And, ultimately, how do we forgive?
Anger is a reasonable thing, says Wheaton College psychology professor Mark McMinn. But in overwhelming situations such as this one, it can lead people to behave irrationally. In this case, that could mean lashing out—whether verbally, physically, or mentally—against people who fit a certain profile because of their ethnicity or religion.
"I really appreciate a lot of the voices we're hearing in the media that are saying we need to be slow to come to conclusions, that we need to take our time and not be so filled with vindictiveness that we do rash things. We need to not only take that advice nationally but personally."
Venting anger does not help, explains McMinn. "It will not be helpful to scream or yell or find an Arab American to take it out on. Nor does it help to pretend it's not there. Anytime that we are overwhelmed with emotion, the thing we need to do is look at it, to sit with it, to allow ourselves to feel what we feel—but to continue to behave responsibly.
"Anger is almost always a secondary emotion. It almost always sits on top of some deeper, more painful emotion. So, for most of us who are experiencing anger right now, we find it easier to talk about the anger than we do about the deeper emotions of sadness or fear that drive the anger."
McMinn, of course, isn't suggesting that there's not a place for moral outrage. In the face of the horrendous evil that struck us this week, righteous indignation is quite appropriate. "We ought to feel that," he says. "But we also ought to not settle for that. We should dig deeper and grapple with our fear about what this may mean for the future—for our children and grandchildren. We should recognize how sad we feel over this tragedy—not only for those who have lost family members, but also for the state of the sinful world in which we are all participants."
As director of Wheaton's two-year-old Center for Church-Psychology Collaboration, McMinn spends a lot of time trying to help local churches incorporate the latest resources and ideas from his field into their ministries. So it's not unusual to discover that the church is ultimately where he thinks true healing will be found for our national pain.
"There's nothing good about this tragedy, but God specializes in taking things that are terrible and bringing about good," McMinn says. "One of the things that God is already doing in the midst of this event is reminding us of the importance of church community, the hope that we find by being with other believers. There's something beautiful about the church that draws us together to be in a place where we can pray, where we can search for answers—even when they are not readily found."
Edward Gilbreath is an associate editor for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Related Christianity Today coverage this week includes:
'Is That Thunder?' | With metal cracking at the World Trade Center, New York pastors cry out to God. (Sept. 14, 2001)
Communication Troubles Challenge U.S. Church Relief Agencies | Aid work continues amid atmosphere of shock, fear, and sporatic harrassment. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Reflections on Suffering | Classic and contemporary quotations for dark times. (Sept. 13, 2001)
When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Muslims Fear a Backlash | No matter who is responsible, observers feel a reaction will still be present. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Fear and Hate | In times like this, as in all other times, Christians have a responsibility to love above all else. (Sept. 11, 2001)
God's Message in the Language of Events | In the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Media coverage on the backlash facing Arab Americans:
Arab - Americans Attacked, Threatened — The New York Times (Sept. 14, 2001)
Backlash: Hate thrown at Arab Americans — The New York Times (Sept. 14, 2001)
Protesters turn anger on Muslim Americans — Chicago Tribune (Sept. 14, 2001)
Denton mosque is third to be attacked — Dallas Morning News (Sept. 14, 2001)
Canadian Muslims `feel under siege' — Toronto Star (Sept. 14, 2001)
Crowd in Ill. demonstrates at mosque as backlash continues against Arab-Americans, Muslims — Associated Press (Sept. 13, 2001)
Attacks Against Arab-Americans Escalate in U.S. — Reuters (Sept. 13, 2001)
In U.S., Echoes of Rift Of Muslims and Jews — The New York Times (Sept. 13, 2001)
U.S. Muslims worry about a backlash; spitting, shouts, but no attacks in Seattle area — Associated Press (Sept. 13, 2001)
Previous Christianity Today articles on Muslim-Christian relations include:
How Muslims See Christianity | Many Muslims don't understand Christianity—especially the idea of salvation by grace through faith.
Islamic Fundamentals | Christians have a responsibility to understand our Muslim neighbors and their beliefs
Islam, U.S.A. | Are Christians prepared for Muslims in the mainstream?
Christianity Today's other articles on the attacks include:
Christians Provide Comfort in the Shadow of Calamity | Still "stunned and reeling," New Yorkers seek support at prayer service. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Shaken Christians Turn to Prayer | Impromptu services usher in the bereaved by word of mouth, road signs, and e-mail. (Sept. 13, 2001)
Illinois Pastor on Fatal Flight | Jeffrey Mladenik, 43, was involved in workplace ministry, international adoption. (Sept. 13, 2001)
In the Belly of the Beast | Christians, calling terrorist attack "satanically brilliant," minister at epicenter of World Trade disaster. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Churches, Agencies Respond to Attacks | Leaders call for prayer, justice, and mercy. (Sept. 12, 2001)
A Wake-Up Call to Become Global Christians | The deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Nation's Religious Leaders Urge Calm, Pray for Peace | Churches will maintain prayer vigils for victims and leaders. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Church Leaders Around World Deplore 'Unspeakable Horror' of Attack | Christians urged to unite in prayer as they unite in shock and denunciation. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Experts Say Spiritual Roots Will Aid in Coping With Catastrophe | Pray and connect with others, advise nation's chaplains. (Sept. 11, 2001)
The Text This Week, a resource for pastors, has collected sermons and reflections in response to the Sept. 11 events.