Questions Amidst the Silence: One Canadian’s Ethical Reflections on September 11th

[1] Silence. My important memory of September 11th was the silence that fell over Canada in the wake of the horrific attacks. It was not a quiet silence, but rather the very veneer of a people who with their U.S. neighbors were silenced by the dark mystery of evil, by a world they no longer recognized and by the shattering of moral assumptions that structured their common life. In short, this silence was a profoundly “ethical moment.”

An Ethical Moment
[2] Use the term “ethical moment” not merely as a description, but to capture the profound wrestling that happens out of necessity when people struggle to resolve paradoxes and dilemmas that ‘old’ answers no longer explain. Such moments are opportunities for hope at the risk of despair. In such moments people must summon their most ultimate beliefs and values and apply them to their situation to enable new ways of thinking about their life and the world to emerge. Professor Neil Postman of New York University recently said, “Our country was being dulled . . . (now) we need to change our way of thinking.” September 11 – one need not even describe it any more than this – was a global “ethical moment” of momentous magnitude which challenges us to ask the right questions.

[3] In reflecting on the events of the past few weeks, the level of human suffering and anguish is unfathomable. Attempts at reflection can easily add to the torment of those who have been victims just as the explanations offered Job by his friends seemed insensitive and only added to his suffering. Certainly, that is not my intention here. But in the midst of the suffering, we do ask each other, “What do you make of this?” This is after all the ethical enterprise. So I offer a few thoughts as but one Christian, one Lutheran and one Canadian friend.

[4] During these past few weeks, there have been at least three important periods in this “ethical moment.” The first most noticeable during the early days, was a time for grieving. The second most noticeable in the subsequent weeks, was a time of anger. The third, yet now unfolding, is a time of doubt. These are not exclusive of each other nor are they complete. “Everything has changed” we are told and these remain somewhat un-chartered waters. In addition to the full range of human experience, each period has confronted us with concurrent ethical questions. More specifically, these different challenges might also help explain how many Canadians have reacted.

A Time for Grief
[5] Our hearts as global neighbors were broken by the countless stories of unimaginable loss, stories of redemption, stories of sacrifice, stories of heroism, stories of compounded tragedy, and stories of reunion. Public opinion polls showed Canadians were deeply upset by this tragedy (98% of women and % of men).11 Canadians felt deep compassion for their U.S. neighbors. Most people simply asked “How can we help?”

[6] Canadians responded overwhelmingly. Canadians opened their doors to the thousands stranded at Canadian airports, lined up to donate blood, went to help in the rescue efforts, donated money, and sent thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls expressing concern and support.

[7] Prayer and moral deliberation was part of this process. Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) invited congregations to a national day of prayer and remembrance on September 16. ELCIC National Bishop Raymond Schultz, along with other Canadian church leaders, sent a pastoral letter which was discussed in many congregations. They wrote,

“The peace we seek will not be based upon conquering others, forcing people into submission, hurting the innocent, or ignoring the victims and people marginalized throughout the world. The peace of Christ will take us into paths that lead to reconciliation with God and reconciliation among people through the power of the Spirit breaking in among us. It will be a path of justice, equity and security for all.”2

[8] In addition, the letter offered a concrete ethical framework (“Bring terrorists to justice”, “Observe due process of law”, “Define limits of force,” “Address deeper causes, “Acknowledge our interdependence” and “Recover a justice and peace perspective”) for discussing how our leaders might respond to the crisis that these events created. Many congregations used the letter to engage in a process of moral deliberation.

[9] As in the U.S., the brutal bluntness of this tragedy awakened in people an experience of human solidarity at its most basic level. Many probably had not had such an experience before or had forgotten this sensation in a world caught up with self-interest. It also re-awakened many painful memories of loss among older people who knew the horrors and destruction of war. People were forced to think about these issues and consider how their values needed to impact on their own lives in ways materialism and the frenetic pace of life never seems to allow.

A Time for Anger
[10] The second period in this “ethical moment” was one of cautious anger. Initially, Prime Minister Chrétien was very cautious in his statements about Canadian support for what he called a “campaign against terrorism.” By late September, polls indicated that between 73% to 76% of Canadians agreed to “. . . the full support of the government’s commitment of the Canadian military to the war on terrorism.”3

[11] In an open ecumenical appeal to the prime Minister and members of Parliament on October 12, just prior to a formal debate in the House of Commons on Canada’s role, church representatives, building on the earlier letters, called for a response not motivated by retribution.

“All the elements of the struggle against terrorism – near term measures to prevent additional attacks, the pursuit, capture and trial of those accused of participating in or sharing responsibility for the September 11 attacks, and long term measures towards the reduction and eradication of terrorism – must be guided by methods and processes that honour the laws, values and freedoms that terrorism threatens. Canada must work to demilitarise the international struggle against terrorism, and we must resist pressures to curtail immigration, to reduce access to safe havens for refugees, and to change national priorities to increase military spending at the expense of social programs and development assistance.”

[12] Trading on Augustine and Ambrose, some columnists and politicians in response reopened a historic debate by describing this intervention as a “just war.” David Pratt, a member of Parliament and chairperson of the House of Common’s Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, dismissed the church’s perspective as “naive” and said that Canada was supporting a “just war.” However, in the politicians’ and columnists’ analysis their references to “just war” thinking were unfortunately incomplete. They omitted certain criteria such as protection of non-combatants. Concerning the criteria they did identify, their recommendations to meet them were insufficient, failing to appreciate the effort of such an approach to limit the use of force and its destructive consequences. The use of the “just war” thinking seemed more a rationalization of a direction already decided than a consideration employed to choose an ethical mode of action. The politicians and columnists failed to understand that the churches’ letters did not preclude the use of military force to accompany the civil authority (a police action) to bring the perpetrators to justice and to provide security against further terrorists attacks.

[13] These statements by church leaders and representatives, based upon thirty years of church conversation about militarism and nuclear disarmament, reflected the intense and sobering discussion that was taking place within and among churches and other faith groups. The above letters which also rejected the massive use of retributive military force, represented the consistent ecumenical consensus – delicate to say the least – between pacifists who rejected force and those who accepted the use of measured military force as a regrettable necessity to protect people. I would dare say it is also reflected in the historic Canadian reluctance to resort to military solutions, evidenced by the consistent pride Canadians have for their “peacekeeping” tradition, for which Prime Minister Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize.

A Time for Doubt
[14] The third period in this “ethical moment” was one of doubt. Doubt is necessary for hope because it forces us to ask questions of faith and its implications for the future. Recent public opinion polls indicate Canadians are more equally divided between those who say Canada should unequivocally support the United States (45%) and those who believe that Canada should offer moral and humanitarian support but move to address the “root causes of terrorism” (%).4

[15] This divided response is also indicative of the divided feelings Canadians have toward the U.S. and its ability to transcend its own perceived national self-interests and perspective. Canadians enjoy a very close relationship with the U.S., benefit from close economic and cultural ties and like much that is American, including the American people. Nevertheless, they also know what it is like to live as “colony” in the shadow of “empire” to paraphrase theologian Douglas John Hall.5 They have maintained a healthy suspicion of U.S. government policies, the corporate domination of their economy (often by U.S.-based companies) and those threats to our national identity which largely go unnoticed to average Americans. Even in the midst of this crisis for example, the U.S. did not hesitate to impose a 12% tariff, in addition to an earlier 19%, on Canadian softwood lumber which will throw an estimated 15,000 out of work in British Columbia, an action which some believe is an attempt to privatize publicly-owned Crown forests. While no less appalled, Canadians do have some sensitivity to the resentments and grievances of other nations. Many do feel that the policies of the U.S. government with the complicity of governments like Canada, have been a contributing factor. While Canadian public leaders profess great support for the war, average Canadians are skeptical and doubtful that singular U.S. decisions and leadership will resolve this crisis and in the longer term be able to build a lasting peace.

[16] Canadian doubts also extend to broader questions involving economic globalization, the role of government, international relations, and even the role of the faith communities. Economic globalization in the booming 1990s with its promises of “prosperity” has been the policy cornerstone of all levels of government in Canada. Yet it has led to a growing divide between rich and poor both in Canada and in the world. Ironically, the arms trade is the most globalized of all sectors, fuelling some 39 armed conflicts in 35 countries in 2001 and causing seven million deaths in 1999, 70 percent of which were civilians.6 Citizens need to ask serious ethical questions of governments which promote profits for arms producers that exact such a human toll, nurture hatred, fuel regional conflicts, prop up undemocratic and corrupt governments, and provide a seedbed for terrorists.

[17] In a similar contradiction, Canadians have been told by governments during much of the last two decades that we can not afford to address the growing social misery of increasing homelessness, child poverty and deplorable conditions for aboriginal peoples in Canada. Nor could we be generous with the poor in other countries, thereby justifying the fact that Canadian Overseas Development Aid fell to a miserly 0.25 percent of GDP, far below its promised 0.7 percent target. Nor was the government ready to pursue the vigorous defense of human rights or environmental sustainability in countries with gross and systematic records of oppression. 7Yet following September 11, the government readily committed over $1 billion to the war effort. Corporate leaders who pressed for privatization, deregulation, corporate tax cuts, and reductions to the social programs did not hesitate to line up for public assistance while at the same time abandoning thousands of workers to a much-weakened unemployment insurance program. Globalization policies were already being questioned before September 11. Canadians may well have more substantial questions of political leaders who support such policies of indifference in the future and who fail to advance respect for human rights and the social well being of people.

[18] This crisis has also provided a renewed role for governments. That people look to governments in times of crisis is not new. Liberal Member of Parliament David Pratt, mentioned earlier, pointed to this change in saying just recently that “governments are no longer the provider of services but the protector of people.” 8Earlier this year, Maclean’s, a national magazine, raised a question on many people’s minds, “Does Ottawa Matter?” September 11 certainly has provided a defense and security purpose for the federal government. Reflecting this, the government moved quickly to pass severe security legislation that threatens civil liberties. At the same time there is pressure from the White House and some voices within Canada to harmonize Canadian immigration policies to create a North American security perimeter. This is coupled with two decades of expanded American economic influence and ownership. As well, Canada’s social security system, including our public health care system has been under attack. Canadians will need to ask “Does Canada matter?” And if so, “What kind of Canada do we want and what kind of government do we need to make it possible?”

[19] Doubt may lead us to hope for a new international body politic with new international institutions. Responding to these terrorists’ attacks as an “act of war” is the way nation-states have always responded, different today but not really new. Whereas previously some have suggested that war is the failure of politics, war has become politics in a destructive form, a politics that short circuits and eclipses the possibility of choosing different and more humane alternatives. While the UN has come under some harsh criticism, it is often from those unprepared to acknowledge its accomplishments and the vital work done by its many agencies. The unanimous condemnation and genuine revulsion at the events of September 11 offer the prospect of asking the political question in a new way. It will require renewed political investment in the United Nations forum, ratifying outstanding treaties and conventions as well as negotiating new ones and following through on the creation of additional international institutions such as the proposed international court. As successful nations reinvent themselves as national communities within an ever more connected global community, we will need to ask what justice requires of us in building an inclusive international politic and strengthening international institutions that will safeguard people against the tragedy of war and the evil of terrorism.

[20] Finally, this moment of doubt has raised questions about the role of the churches and faith communities. Canadians are a religious people, but just over 20 percent regularly participate in a worshipping community. The attacks of September 11 forced many people to examine issues of faith and belief in their personal lives. But it also raised questions about the role of religious institutions in the public arena. When 100,000 people gathered on Parliament Hill on September 14 to remember the victims of this tragedy, the absence of religious leaders on an overtly religious occasion, in sharp contrast to the U.S. and U.K. observances, pointed out to many the finality of the Canadian churches disestablishment in public life. This may be a liberating and hopeful sign for the church to more authentically be the bearer of the Gospel, unencumbered by the temptations and trappings of civil religion. The vigorous efforts by churches to listen to Jewish and Muslim neighbors and the very public condemnation of racist actions toward visible minorities during these particularly fearful times for them, confirms that the way of solidarity may be the only theologically faithful and viable direction for the future. Christian communities will need to ask if we are prepared for this challenge and if so, to rethink our social engagement with the wider society.

A Time for Hope
[21] September 11 was a profound ethical moment of grief, anger and doubt that forced us as Canadians and Americans to once again confront the human question. Canadians do see the world and the challenges somewhat differently than our U.S. neighbors. Recently I met with U.S. colleagues. I was deeply impressed by the depth and struggle of their ethical reflection on these monstrous events. I was struck by the observation that we are much like two friends who are the same but different. We owe it to each other to heartily encourage in times of despair but also to honestly admonish each other in times of challenge in order to be all that God intends us to be. This is the humility that must accompany us in the silences of these difficult days as events continue to frighten, shock and concern us.

[22] This is a time when the ethical vocation is even more urgent. It is hard to know hope unless you have encountered despair. It is hard to see the light ahead unless you have passed through the darkness. These are times when we must seek to get the questions right even if the answers allude us so that as the Apostle Paul reminds us, we might “. . . not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

End Notes

1 See Environics Research Group public opinion poll conducted between September 19 and October 12, 2001 .

2 The full text of all Church statements regarding September 11 are available at the web site for Project Ploughshares . Project Ploughshares is an ecumenical coalitions supported by the Canadian churches including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

3 See Decima Research Group public opinion poll conducted between September 18 and 22, 2001 .

4 See again the Environics and Decima results.

5 Douglas John Hall, “God and the Nations” (Augsburg Fortress, 1995) Noted Canadian George Grant made a similar point in his classic work “Lament for a Nation” (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965) Hall published a similar work entitled “The Canada Crisis” (Toronto: The Anglican Book Centre, 1980).

6 See Project Ploughshares.

7 There are some disturbing reports that the abuse of human rights in places like Columbia are being exacerbated by the events of September 11 as governments use the “war on terrorism” as a cover for further repression or inaction against bringing violators to justice. Human rights defense will become more complicated.

8 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio 1 Program Cross Country Checkup, October 29, 2001.