Safe in America

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Friday the 14th was my birthday, and I was powerfully struck by the differences between my celebrations last year and this. Last year, Peter and I made the wonderful journey to what for me is the spiritual and physical heart of our country, Uluru. It was a moving and momentous experience for me, combining the celebration of my 50 years and the dawn of the third millennium. I returned to a surprise party and celebrated in the heart of my family and friends.

This year I celebrated my life in the broken heart of America. Friday the 14th was declared a day of Prayer and Remembrance for those who suffered such tragic loss on Tuesday.

While the heart of America is broken – the sorrow and grief is almost unspeakable – the spirit of America is not. The service I attended at noon on Friday at Purdue was one of the most moving experiences of raw emotion I have ever known. As have many people all over the world I have run the full gamut of emotions from sadness, anxiety, and fear, to thanksgiving, solidarity, pride and hope. At times I have been almost numb, not daring to explore feelings that are so intense that I would perhaps be at a loss to understand or identify them. The spirit and message of the Memorial service at Purdue was one of hope and determination. I was truly inspired by the words of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic leaders who spoke, and also by the student and university leaders who urged all present to give honour to those who had died by celebrating life. They called on us to support one another and to draw closer to our loved ones. My sense of distance from family and friends which I have found so difficult in these past weeks became even more painfully obvious. I gave thanks for all the phone and email messages I had received that day. Thank you all. I needed so much to hear from you.

The strength and resolve of the American people has been remarkable. Flags and red, white and blue abound. The level of patriotism is high, but at times I have found those sentiments somewhat disturbing. When patriotism evokes blindness, bigotry, and vengeance, then I fear it almost as much as I fear the zeal of the terrorists who perpetrated their unspeakable evil on so many innocent people.

I fear the sort of blindness expressed by President Bush and which I have heard repeated by others, that America was attacked because it is a symbol of goodness and freedom. There are many peoples and countries in the world who have reason to be aggrieved by atrocities and deprivations they have suffered at the hands of American foreign policy decisions and actions. They would not identify America as representing goodness and freedom.

I fear the sort of bigotry which I have heard has also happened in Australia where all Muslims are being made targets of vilification in a rush to assign blame and assuage fear. One speaker I have heard over the past week has noted that there are more followers of Islam in America than there are Episcopalians, and their faith bears no resemblance to the extreme fundamentalism of these terrorists and their kind. Indeed, many Muslims (up to 1000) were themselves victims of the attack on Tuesday and many of their grieving families have had to suffer the additional pain of hateful comments and worse which are being directed at them.

I fear also the sense of righteousness that seeks vengeance and would repay evil with evil. It has been heartening to me to see the efforts and results so far achieved by investigators as they search out those responsible. It is also heartening to see so many nations offering support and showing their abhorrence of terrorism. It is essential that terrorist criminals face justice, but we must strongly resist the urge to wreak vengeance.

The spirit of patriotism which is so strong at the moment also of course has its positive side, and I believe it is the driving force which is keeping this nation going at the moment. The strength of camaraderie, solidarity, and compassion has buoyed spirits which would otherwise be overwhelmed by grief and despair. I have been amazed by the resiliency of people as they show their resolve not to be cowered by terror. One comment I have heard is that the terrorists have brought America to its knees – not in submission, but in prayer and service of others. The only things open last Tuesday night were churches and houses of prayer as people came together to support and comfort one another in their grief. The generous outpouring of physical support has also been striking. People here in Lafayette and all over the country have queued for 4-6 hours to give blood, they have sent money and supplies, they have hopped on buses or driven themselves to offer support in the rescue and clean-up. Medical and counselling staff have signed up to go and work with victims. Children have sent messages of love and concern. The children of Oklohoma have sent teddy bears and messages to the children of New York, telling them that the pain will pass. The courage of the rescue workers, many of whom have themselves suffered personal loss, is awe-inspiring. The flag is the symbol of unity, of hope, and of strength.

In the midst of so much destruction, devastation, senseless loss and horror, I stand respectfully beside my American friends. It is a great country. I hope the response to come proves to ourselves and to all that indeed it is a symbol of goodness and freedom.

I hope my next birthday is less memorable.