Fifteen years ago, we all remember where we were on a beautiful September morning when planes became weapons of terrorism and mass destruction. I was on route to a session with my spiritual director and our time was spent holding each other, weeping silently, as we watched the unthinkable unfold on the screen of her TV. Shocked and disbelieving, our prayers were limited to the words, “Oh, God! No!” It was a prayer echoed by many in that moment as the reality of what we were witnessing hit home.

Pre-9/11 America seemed safe and secure, even noble, but the events of that day rocked us out of our comfort zone, changed our perspective and shattered the beliefs we had about ourselves as a country.

Fifteen years ago, we came together as a nation, putting aside our many differences. We held each other as we also held our candles and our interfaith vigils in a rare show of unity and shared grief. President Bush, in a shining moment, declared Islam to be a religion of peace and Muslims our fellow citizens and neighbors.

Fifteen years ago, our leaders promised swift retaliation, and most supported it. What began as an effort to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice continues, but it has morphed into an indefinite “war on terror” that has spread way beyond the initial intent. Billions of dollars have been spent and untold lives, both military and civilian, have been lost or irreparably harmed.

Fifteen years later, the question still haunts us: Are we any safer? The world, by all measures, is a more dangerous place than it was. Statistically, however, America is a less violent place, with the crime rate down. There have been no repeat attacks on the scale of 9/11, and beefed up intelligence has thwarted some planned major terror events. Still, small-scale but horrific attacks have us on edge, so much so that we can overreact.

Recently LAX and JFK, two of our busiest airports, were shut down when people panicked after hearing loud banging noises. The same happened in shopping malls in North Carolina, Michigan and Florida. Cars backfiring, balloons popping and a glass door shattering sent people fleeing for exits. Others, who had not heard anything, assumed the worst and joined the stampede, injuring many, a few seriously, in their blind, fearful run.


Fifteen years later, psychologists describe us suffering a level of national anxiety that does not reflect the true level of danger. Terrorism specialist Dr. John Horgan stressed that in addition to physical violence, “terrorism is fundamentally a form of psychological warfare, and it’s one of the greatest ironies that we help give it its strength in our reactions to it.”

Two thousand years ago, Jesus spoke to a people living fearfully under the brutality of Roman oppression. Many wanted to fight back, to match violence with violence. In response, he uttered some of his most troubling and difficult teachings. He told his followers to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek when struck. That last one has always rankled me as it has been misused to quell any form of resistance to injustice and abuse.

Turning the other cheek, however, is not a call to passivity, but a call to a new perspective, to look in a different direction. What we have done over the last fifteen years has not ended the cycle of violence, and I wonder if it isn’t time to turn the other cheek, not in submission, but in the hope of gaining a new way of looking at this seemingly intractable problem.

Turn the other cheek and look not only at terrorists but at the conditions that produce them. Professor Sahar Aziz, of Texas A&M, once stated that a shift from a military strategy of counter terrorism to one focused on human development in the region would starve terrorist organizations of the chaos they thrive on. For us to feel safe and secure, others need to feel safe and secure as well.

Turn the other cheek to look back fifteen years at the moments when our best selves emerged amidst the death and destruction and then, in the words of the White Queen to Alice in her Wonderland adventures, remember them forward. Remember how we stood together and gave and received comfort from people we might otherwise avoid, how people from all religions and no religion gathered in Yankee Stadium for an interfaith prayer service. Remember how we tapped the deep wisdom and hope embedded in all faiths and gathered strength from it.

Fifteen years later, we can turn the other cheek and propel those memories forward and build upon them. We built on the ruins of Ground Zero, and we can build upon the ruins of our hearts and psyches something not tinged with revenge but with hope. Not riddled with fear but filled with faith.

Fifteen years from now, we might perceive a very different world.

The Rev. Janet Dorman is the pastor at Foreside Community Church, UCC, in Falmouth. She can be reached at

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