We may not know much about the war this country is getting ready to fight, but we do know one thing. It will be a "new" war, a "modern" war, the first real war of the 21st century. We will fight it with futuristic technologies, unprecedented global alliances and newfangled weaponry. Our enemy will surprise us with never-before-seen combat tactics; we in turn will employ neoteric strategies of intelligence, diplomacy and hardware.
It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, that what we will be fighting over is God.
A surprise to Americans, that is. For the mujahideen who orchestrated the Sept. 11 attack, it's never been about anything else. These are men who lovingly kiss the Koran before strapping explosives to their waists. Who board doomed jumbo jets in the name of Allah. For them, God sits at his ease in the war room, a Kalashnikov propped against his hip. For them, we are not simply a nemesis, but the Great Satan. It is not just a war, but a jihad, a holy war.
Could there be anything queerer, in this country, than a holy war? I don't mean that God has been missing in the wake of the tragedy; as a nation we have released prayers like confetti on an updraft. I mean that in two-and-a-half centuries of war we have never fought about God. Territory, oil, national security, super-power grievances, sure, but God? Even the Revolutionary War was about shaking King George loose so we could make our own private arrangements with religion. The truth is, it makes us uneasy when faith infuses radical action or thought. Our own Bible Belt fundamentalists embarrass us with their clinic bombings and creationist arguments. We hide behind the door when the Jehovah's Witnesses come, and smile politely at anyone who has been born more than once.
Thus it is that Osama bin Laden and his cadre of holy warriors are as strange to us as stardust. In our easy secularity, we are hard-pressed to understand that, for these believers, faith is not--as Communism was for the Soviet Union--a convenient rationalization for corruption and repression. Faith is the whole point. We are comfortable in our condemnation of the Taliban as an instrument of brutality, but we squirm at the ferocity of the Talib's devotion. We just don't get that faith, even a twisted faith, could compel men to smash themselves into skyscrapers. Or that thousands of these men wait on a dusty and war-torn horizon half-way around the world, listening to the warbling song of the muezzin, waiting to sacrifice their lives as well.
Several days after the September attack, I read an account of a little girl who had witnessed bodies falling from the World Trade Center and later told her father they were "God's angels." That description, her father said, inspired his own search for God. It is a search many of us have undertaken in the days since the tragedy, and it is a search marked, not only by hope, but by anguish and confusion. Where was God on that bright September morning?
We can be sure that, for the men who planned the attack, as well as for those poised to fight American troops, there is no such confusion. On the morning of Sept. 11, Allah was, for them, at ground zero, exalted in a thunderhead of smoke and fire, the angels of death falling around him.
In times like these we take our miracles where we can get them. Here's one: As I write this, fully three weeks after the attacks in New York and Washington, not a single bomb has dropped on the country of Afghanistan. In this time we have moved from shock to rage to reflection. We have, for instance, begun to ask questions other than "Where is that son-of-a-bitch bin Laden hiding?" One of those questions is, "Why do they hate us so much?"
There is no shortage of answers. Half-witted right-wingers say they hate us because they're evil. Half-witted liberals switch out the pronoun: They hate us because we're evil. George W. Bush tells us it's because our country is a beacon of freedom that threatens to shine into their dirty little hole. Susan Sontag says no, it's due to the monstrosities of our foreign policy. The L.A. Weekly says they hate us "because we don't even understand why they hate us," because we are too spoiled and too stupid to understand our role in the world's suffering.
All these explanations ring true to me. This is a complicated, festering hate, something tribal and Byzantine, with many origins. Still, the voice from the L.A. Weekly felt the most compelling, because it suggested the intimate, personal nature of hatred. I remember, when the Berlin Wall fell, reading somewhere that the Cold War had ended finally because American and Soviet citizens did not dislike each other enough. That we had been forced over time to admit to a certain common ground of thoughts, hopes, dreams and fears. That we were, in short, members of the same tribe.
There are no such bridges between the militant members of al-Qaeda and the American people. To understand the starkness of the disconnect, consider how alien our culture seems even to peaceful people of faith. I once watched a rerun of (of all things) Three's Company in the student union at UNC-Chapel Hill. A small group of Muslim visitors had paused by the televisions and were watching for a moment while their guide chatted with a friend. On the screen, Chrissy squealed and scooted around in short-shorts. At the commercial break, the guide smiled a little sheepishly and asked what they thought. One of the men, wearing a modest turban, looked as if the question had given him pain. In a small voice of dignified sadness he said, simply, "It is godless."
At the time, I found the man's reply interesting and a little amusing. In the last few weeks, however, as our culture has righted itself and resumed regular programming--Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Man Show, The Shopping Channel--it's been hard to avoid seeing ourselves afresh, illuminated by the disaster. It's a sobering sight. As a nation, our "recovery" effort has focused on returning to "normal," by which we mean entertaining ourselves and making money. Financial analysts go on the radio to urge us to "go ahead and buy the same things you used to buy." I don't know about you, but I feel like my patriotic duty has been whittled down to a single mandate: Go out and purchase an airplane ticket.
This country's vulgarity, its greed and excesses, have been much hashed over and needn't be hashed over again here. They must be acknowledged, though, in any explanation for why others hate us. In the view of fundamentalist Islam, our vices assume grave implications. The French may view American cinema as a crude excuse for culture; Militant Islam sees Pretty Woman as an insult to Allah-who-will-not-be-insulted. Even before Mohammad's vision at the summit of Mount Hira, Arab peoples were devoted to ideals of dignity and indifference to material goods. No matter how people like Osama bin Laden twist those ideals, they persist in real ways in the Arab world, and they play a role in how our country is judged.
Only days after the September attacks, John Updike wrote that freedom is "mankind's elixir, even if a few turn it to poison." I'm patriotic enough to agree. I'll take Chrissy in her short-shorts over a woman forced to wear a burka and beg on the streets. Still, it is disheartening to realize that, in our unwitting abuse of freedom we become--at least on our surface--yet another fundamentalist culture, as terrible in our want of God as the Muslim fundamentalists are in their misuse of him.
I say on the surface because, of course, many Americans are people of deep faith. As a nation though--and especially as a nation "under God"--we have more often than not done a poor job of showing that faith. In the past weeks, countless religious scholars and theologians have reminded us that the God of Mohammad is the God of Christ is the God of Abraham. In any of these incarnations, he is an exacting guy. If you think otherwise, open a Bible, or the Torah, to almost any page. It isn't pretty. This is a God whose overtures for righteousness, generosity and compassion are formidable. This is a God who calls us to pay attention to the world's deep misery.
Does this country answer that call? In some ways, yes. In others, no. America can be exuberantly generous and viciously brutal. It can send life-saving aid to refugee camps in one part of the world and strangle another part with sanctions that kill people no less innocent than the victims of Sept. 11. The godliness of our response depends on the politics involved, which renders all our responses godless. For people who put religion--even a barely recognizable religion--at the center of their private lives and their governmental regimes, our country must seem hateful indeed. The Great Satan.
There is a good argument--I believe it myself--that Osama bin Laden and his ilk are not religious at all. That theirs is not the God of Islam, but an unrecognizable and even beastly aberration. That therefore to judge our own God-fearing standing against theirs would be absurd.
Fair enough. But what would happen if, in pointing out the atrocities of one extreme, we began to pay attention to those of another? In Kabul, they will whip a woman who shows too much skin; here, we give her her own TV show. In its devotion to a repressive dogma, Militant Islam flays women who paint their nails, removes the hands off thieves; in our devotion to freedom, we make a dogma of greed that ignores the despair present in our own streets. Of the many mantras this country has adopted since Sept. 11, one stands out: We will never be the same again. Need that be a lamentation?
Where was God on that bright September morning? For the terrorists, God was at ground zero, exalted in a thunderhead of smoke and fire, glorified by death. For the rest of us, there must be a different answer. I like the one offered by the Rev. Joe Harvard of Durham's First Presbyterian Church. God was at ground zero all right, Harvard said. But God was weeping.