True confession: I’m relieved that the anniversary of the September 11th attacks will pass by in a relatively low key fashion this year. There are remembrances, large and small, but nothing like the nationwide commemorations last year on the tenth anniversary.
Don’t misunderstand my relief for a lack of compassion towards anyone who lost a loved on that awful September day 132 months ago. I can’t imagine what life is like now for someone who said goodbye one last time to a spouse or child or friend in the days before or on 9/11. All Americans assumed a bright autumn day was just another normal day, but that normalcy was forever destroyed in the rubble of skyscrapers, in plane wreckage on a Pennsylvania field and in a damaged Pentagon building. We should always remember that day as a nation.
Yet as an American and person of faith, I need to look for some good in the evil of 9/11, hope beyond the visceral horror, fear and shock I still experience whenever I see the images from that day. So this year, while remembering September 11th, 2001, I’ll also remember September 17th, 2001.
There wasn’t much good news on that Monday. The stock market plunged 684 points, 7.1 percent, on its first day of trading post 9/11. Grim rescue operations continued at Ground Zero. Hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers were still finding their way back home. But in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush carried out the most courageous act of his eight year Presidency. That day he visited the Islamic Center of Washington and greeted its leaders and members in front of the cameras for all to see. He spoke out forcefully and bravely against retaliatory acts of violence toward American Muslims and Arabs and of the need for interfaith understanding and peace.
“These acts of violence [on 9/11] against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that,” said Bush. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
Remember that this happened not even a week after the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States. The country was a hothouse of anger and fear and on war footing. Thousands of Americans, anyone who even looked like an “Arab” or a “Muslim”, were suspect in the eyes of many. Mosques received bomb threats. In Mesa, Arizona just two days before, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Sikh, was murdered by Frank Silva Roque, who declared in “defense” of his crime, “I'm a patriot and an American. I'm American. I'm a damn American.”
Yet Bush strode into this atmosphere of religious ignorance and hatred with calm and care, speaking as a deeply devoted Christian in defense of his Muslim brothers and sisters. It was the act of a true statesman and one I want to remember and more Americans should remember too, eleven years after 9/11. As one who was and is admittedly not the biggest fan of President Bush or his legacy, I have to say that this time he got it right: absolutely, positively, completely.
In a recent New York Times article about Bush’s visit, Samuel G. Freedman wrote, “Eleven years after the fact, Mr. Bush has been treated like a prophet without honor in his own land. He was barely mentioned at the Republican convention last week….Yet there was always another side to Mr. Bush…his deep faith and respect for all religions.” Freedman notes Bush was the first Presidential candidate to visit a mosque and that on September 11, 2001 the President’s appointment schedule included a 3 p.m. appointment at the White House with a delegation of American Muslim leaders.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, met with President Bush at the Islamic Center on September 17th and stood behind him as the Commander in Chief asked his fellow American to act with tolerance towards their Muslim and Arab neighbors. Awad says that the video clip of that speech, “should be played over and over to remind people that what made America great is respect for religious freedom and zero tolerance for hate crimes against innocent people.”
So remember September 11th. But let’s remember September 17th too. Even the darkest days are visited with glimpses of inspired leadership and God’s light and hope for our far too often broken world.