Nine years ago on September 11th, I was in Utah as a missionary for my church. LDS missionaries don't generally read newspapers, watch TV, or even listen to the radio, so as far as I knew when my fellow missionary and I left our apartment, this was just another day to preach the gospel of Christ. When we arrived at our first appointment that morning, though, I began to get hints that this day was different.
Our appointment came out of his trailer to meet us. We acted as we normally do, cheerfully greeting him, until he stopped us with the words, "You don't know, do you?" He took us inside and showed us the news report. I could see a building, unrecognizable to me at first, with billows of smoke coming out of it. I don't think any of us knew what was really happening just then, other than that a plane or planes had crashed. The full significance of the event took a long time to set in to my mind.
Most missionaries stay in the field for two years, and I was only halfway through mine when 9/11 occured. For an entire year after, I managed to avoid most of the furor and fear that had gripped the nation, because, like I had been for an entire year before, I was "removed" from the world. I didn't know what the Department of Homeland Security was, who al Qaeda were, or what we were doing to fight them. The first real effect I had felt from the attack was nearly a year later when it came time to fly home and having to take off my shoes before airport security would allow me through.
What was I doing that year while America tried to reset itself after such a horrific event? I was preaching the gospel. While most people had spent the first year after 9/11 trying to decide how to respond to the attacks, I had spent it responding to questions about Christ. While others wondered who had done this and why, I wondered whom I would be teaching next. While others had their focus on worldly matters, I focused on spiritual matters. I spent the second year of my mission in much the same way I had spent the first year. Though I never actually heard President Bush's speech about the need to continue on as we had before the attacks, I was already taking his advice.
I had always known that growing up in the church had given me a different perspective on life, and it certainly has in this case. The scriptures remind us, in many different ways, that vengeance is God's prerogative, and that ours is forgiveness. We're told repeatedly that the law of God is love, for our enemies as well as our neighbors. In the case of the nation of Islam, they are sometimes the same thing. I've said before and still believe that the authors of terror and murder deserve whatever punishment they have coming to them; but that doesn't mean we should hate them. When a group or nation declares war on us or our way of life, it is our responsibility to defend ourselves, and even those who cannot defend themselves; but we should never do it with hate in our hearts. We were enemies with Adolf Hitler, with Mussolini, and with Hirohito, but when World War II ended, we helped Germany, Italy, and Japan rebuild, and now we're strong allies with each nation. We were enemies with Saddam Hussein, but now we have what could be a strong ally in Iraq.
Did Islam itself attack us? Even if it did, we should not hate them, anymore than we should hate each other for how we each choose to respond to the attack. This controversy over the "Ground Zero Mosque" is embarrassing to every one of us. Those who oppose building the center have, in many cases, legitimate anger and pain in their hearts, and that should be respected, not derided, by those who support it. On the other hand, many who oppose it do so for no other reason than they hate Islam. Prejudice and hatred should be fought just as ardently as we fight terror and fear.
Pastor Terry Jones, the man who caused so much controversy himself lately, said this day he would not follow through on his planned Koran-burning. I believe that is the right decision, though I may wonder if he made it for the right reasons. Nevertheless, his proposed burning has sparked outrage across the globe. A riot in Afghanistan resulted in the death of a protester. Westboro Baptist Church, the same church that protested outside of a gay soldier's funeral, threatened to go forward with their own burning if Pastor Jones did not (no word yet on if they have). And just now, there are reports of British Muslims who have burned an American flag along with a picture of Pastor Jones in response to the planned, if canceled, Koran-burning.
This should be a day of remembrance, not vengeance; a day of understanding, not blindness; a day of love, not hate. As President Obama reminded us today, "We are not at war with Islam". Our duty is to remember those whom we have lost, to honor their memories. We do that, as both Presidents Bush and Obama remind us, by coming together as a nation and as a community. We are strongest when we stand united, as we did after the attacks nine years ago, as we have done in every moment of great distress in our nation's history that ultimately lead to victory. The only times America has failed have been when we divided ourselves against each other.
Let us all come together now. We are not Muslims, Jews, or Christians; believers or atheists; Republicans or Democrats. We are Americans. This is a truly great nation, one that has stood as an inspiration to people across the world for centuries now. When one of us attacks another, over our religion (or lack thereof) or our politics, we are all damaged. As a missionary, I learned that people would look at me as an example of my church, and that, however unfair it may be, my behavior would reflect on the church itself. How does our behavior as Americans, on this and every day, reflect on America?
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