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Replacing Evil with Good Ten Years Later

September 9, 2011

By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team

Like most people, I can clearly remember where I was on September 11th , 2011. I spent a few hours with a friend whose husband was working across the street from the World Trade Center, waiting to get word that he was okay.

I also clearly remember where I was on September 12th. That morning started out with a drive in a car that only had AM radio, so I was subjected to talk show hosts shouting about revenge and “nuking” any country that might be harboring the terrorists responsible for the attacks. My destination, set up weeks before, was breakfast at a Buddhist monastery. There, I had an enlightening conversation with the director of training. He was the first one that I heard posing the question: what could have caused these hijackers to hate us so much? He also said that our response always has to be: what can I do to replace the evil with good?

It has been fascinating to read, 10 years later, my day-after reflection on the events of Sept. 11, 2001 that I had sent to my entire email list at the time. And also to read the responses I received and a collection of other reflections, all kept in a folder that I haven’t looked at since then.

“I find terribly troubling the calls for pure revenge,” I wrote at the time. “Aren’t the husbands, wives and children who would be killed in massive American bombing attacks just as precious as the loved ones lost in the World Trade Center? And how effective would such a strategy be anyway? The result is sure to be more terrorist retaliation followed by U.S. responses, in a never-ending cycle of violence that intensifies with each turn and that is accompanied by increasing support for the perpetrators among those who suffer through the American actions.”

That fear, one shared by others who responded to my reflection, unfortunately proved too true. We rushed into war with Afghanistan, and later, with Iraq.  Hatred born of the devastation in those two countries fueled terrorist recruitment efforts. Violence among factions within Iraq caused many deaths and forced thousands of Iraqis to flee, with some of them landing in Albany, NY, under a refugee resettlement program I helped set up several years after the start of that conflict.

There are some recurring themes among some of responses immediately following the terrorist attacks and the reflections I’m now reading for the 10-year anniversary.

I especially think of a column in the Washington Post the other day by a woman whose mother died in a plane that hit the World Trade Center. She shared how each memorial event is like going to yet another funeral, and that that is increasingly unhelpful. She asked that instead of commemorations, we start the process of acceptance and renewal. She suggested we look at the virtues those killed in the attacks possessed, like the compassion of her mother, a clinical psychologist, and consider how we can unleash them in the world.

That sounds a lot like the Buddhist’s question 10 years ago: how can we replace the evil with good? Some answers might come in some of the prayerful responses that Sisters of Mercy are sharing.

The Institute Leadership Team has issued a September 11 statement calling for reflection and action, exactly the terms the woman who lost her mother used to describe what is now needed.  It concludes:

We invite each one of us in the Mercy family to use this 10th anniversary of September 11th to pray and reflect on our complicity in violent responses to crises in our world and how we might draw on our commitment to nonviolence to live differently–both with our neighbors locally and with all peoples of our precious world.

In reading over my reflection of 10 years ago, I’m reminded of my promise to “pay greater attention when I get troubling news of suffering in other parts of the world. And I’ll make time to respond with letters to public officials who can alleviate that suffering with allocations of funds or shifts in policies.”

Reflecting on the Sisters of Mercy statement and my own promise, and considering how I can better honor that promise in the years to come, sounds like a good way of spending at least part of September 11, 2011.

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