As we look back a decade later, where were you when the United States suffered the biggest terrorist attack in its history? Where was the nation—and where are we today?
A decade after Sept. 11, 2001, you can’t help but recall where you were when you learned of the attack against our nation on that terrible, fateful day. It’s one of those dates horribly etched into America’s, and even the world’s, consciousness. It is a trauma that cannot be erased with time. On that shocking day, the centers of the nation’s finance, military and government were attacked simultaneously.
Where were you? We were home preparing for work. I, Michelle, turned on the television to see a live feed of one of the World Trade Center towers—smoke billowing from a gaping void blasted out by an airplane bomb. We stared, transfixed as the rest of the attack unfolded, watching in unbelief as the second passenger jet crashed into the second tower.
We prayed the people could escape the inferno, but we didn’t imagine either structure would actually fall. Then the first tower started crumbling, the intense heat of burning jet fuel causing the steel girders to fail. The building crashed down, down, one floor upon another, pulverizing every material object and causing a cloud of dust to roll over the area. The other soon followed. When the dust cloud began to subside, it seemed unbelievable that the massive towers—which had each stood more than a quarter of a mile high—had been compacted into a 50-foot rubble pile.
Yet there was still more to come. The attack on the Pentagon and a downed plane in Pennsylvania—later understood to be an attempted attack on the U.S. Capitol or the White House foiled by the passengers who lost their lives—further traumatized our nation. It was heartening to see many examples of courage, sacrifice and generosity in the weeks that followed. But there was so much to take in and process.
What was happening in your life on that day the world changed? What was America’s focus and direction? And where do things stand today?
“Where were you when the world stopped turning?”
The moving country song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” was written just a few weeks after 9/11. One of the lines asks, “Were you teaching a class full of innocent children or driving down some cold interstate?” The song debuted November 7, 2001, on the annual Country Music Association (CMA) awards show. Alan Jackson later said he believed God wrote the song, while he just held the pencil. In addition to asking where we were, the song explores the varied reactions of Americans that day. Did you dust off your Bible? Did you go out and by a gun? “Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers? Did you stand in line and give your own blood?”
The Friday after the attacks, Michael met with some of our town’s residents, mostly strangers, who gathered to pray. He held the hand of the UPS man as they bowed their heads in prayer for our country, the families of those murdered in the attack and those that were still trapped in the rubble.
That day, seeking solace, I wandered in my flower bed, where one last red rose of summer bloomed on my hybrid tea. Our small neighborhood of duplexes was on a circular drive. I looked across the way to see a woman outside on a kitchen chair. She was covered from head to toe in Muslim dress. She was new to me, although I had seen Middle Eastern men there. I felt compassion for one who now might be considered the enemy. I plucked the rose and walked down the asphalt drive, praying it would help her. She seemed perplexed but pleased when I handed her the bloom.
Later, as I learned of the radical teachings of Islamists, about sleeper cells in different parts of the country, I realized it was possible she or her family could be the nation’s enemy. If so, my gesture held even more meaning.
Where were we as a nation?
We all remember where we were individually, but what about us as a nation? Until that morning, didn’t we as a nation feel secure in our power? The United States of America seemed an unstoppable force, an invincible power to most of its citizens and the rest of the world.
Only a small minority have been emotionally and spiritually prepared for events like this—the ones who recognize that unless our country repents, it is prophesied to fall. Contrast this with most Americans, who, if they thought of it at all, probably expected to see each generation more prosperous than the last, secure in our borders and blessed with the freedoms ensured by our Constitution. Indeed, didn’t we believe it to be the best place on earth to live?
Did we as a nation dust off our Bibles, as Jackson’s song asks? Did we devote ourselves anew to a life of faith, hope and love, as his lyrics advise? We were forced to face our vulnerability in a way we never had before. And the reality that our borders are vulnerable to the enemy remains. We have traded some individual freedoms for protection from that enemy, but have we as a people changed for the better? Did we start looking to the Bible and God’s law as our guide?
Our nation’s wake-up call to repentance
Some predicted 9/11 was the start of World War III. After 10 years, though, we have yet to experience the first nuclear bomb or an escalation in terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, 9/11 ought to have been a strong wake-up call for our nation. For a short time after the dust at Ground Zero settled, our nation did appear to be turning to God and the Bible. A Jan. 7, 2002, USA Today article stated that, by some estimates, church attendance increased by 25 percent after the attacks. A Gallup poll indicated the percentage of Americans who said religion was “very important” to them increased from 57 percent in May 2001 to 64 percent after the attacks. Yet it also noted church attendance and religious interest decreased shortly afterward.
In Luke 13:3-4, Jesus referred to a particular tower falling in His day in making people aware of their need for repentance: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Just as the people of Siloam, the victims of 9/11 were no worse than the rest of the nation. But our nation does have much to repent of.
This in no way validates the assessment of the terrorists behind the attacks or anti-American sympathizers. Our nation’s guilt is not due to the reasons espoused by the Islamists or those sympathizers who hate America for its wealth and advocacy of freedom. Their sins are even greater. Still, we stand quite guilty as a nation—having abandoned to a great degree the biblical principles on which the nation was forged.
On Sept. 13, Jerry Falwell, a prominent leader of the Religious Right, blamed aspects of our country that God loathes, claiming God had allowed 9/11 because our culture despises God’s ways. He chastised the American Civil Liberties Union for throwing God out of the public square. Of abortionists, pagans, gay and lesbian activists, he said, “You all helped this happen.” He decried the 40 million innocent deaths of unborn babies since abortion was legalized in 1973.
Falwell was chastised for speaking out and for his timing and ended up apologizing. And indeed it was presumptuous to link various national sins with a specific national catastrophe. But it’s not presumptuous to recognize that God will lift His hand of protection and allow such events in response to national defiance of His will.
The United States was certainly in dire need of a national repentance at the time—and our need is even greater today. In the ensuing decade, millions more unborn babies have died a terrible death. It may be a coincidence, but we should wake up to the fact that the number who died in the 9/11 attacks—around 3,000 people—is about the number of babies aborted, many in gruesome ways, every day in this country. The mass murder of 9/11 provided a window for us to view in a singular event the scale of what occurs secretly in separate instances every day. By our mass breaking of the Sixth Commandment through national policy, this nation has a mountain of sin of which to repent. And that is just one aspect of our culture that needs to change.
Where are we now?
A national introspection bordering on repentance did not last long. Instead of turning to God, we turned to our military, projecting the armed might of America halfway across the world with “shock and awe.” Some even developed a prideful arrogance about the country and its armed forces far beyond appropriate patriotism. Of course, the pursuit of justice and retaliation to dissuade further attack makes sense from the perspective of international relations. But missing was the pursuit of our highest priority—humble devotion to God.
We did not do as King David admonished in Psalm 20:7: “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” And in Psalm 33:16: “No king is saved by the multitude of an army; a mighty man is not delivered by great strength.”
Indeed, pride in national power is foolish, especially in light of the fact that God warned of this consequence of national sin: “I will break the pride of your power” (Leviticus 26:19).
Partly due to the tremendous cost of these military ventures, our economy has had a serious downfall, comparable in some respects to the Great Depression of the 1930s. We are facing the downgrading of our government’s credit rating. Unemployment has not been this high for this long since the Depression. Our lack of financial responsibility and self-discipline has come back to haunt us. Dealing with this pending financial catastrophe will require a national change of heart, one that our nation considered briefly but refused to make after 9/11.
God wanted us to turn to Him in our time of trial. After giving Him lip service, our nation turned to its might and resources. While we have security temporarily, it’s not clear how much longer we can even afford to defend ourselves. Unless we undergo a national repentance, we are destined to experience more serious woes that will make the trauma of 9/11 pale in comparison.
Joel 2 warns of terrible times destined to befall the world if its people continue in their selfish ways. God Himself calls for repentance with these words: “‘Now, therefore,’ says the Lord, ‘Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning’” (verse 12). May we all heed His call.