Ten years ago, within a mere four-month period, we, as Americans, had our blinders ripped off. On September 11, 2001, radical, jihadist Muslims used our own planes to kill Americans and others in our centers of business, prosperity, and government. As the culprits came more crisply into view, we saw that they had been educated in our flight schools and been residents of our own towns. And yet, they were overflowing with white-hot religious fervor against us.
Four months later, on January 7, 2002, the Boston Globe unmasked the hierarchy of the Catholic Church as enablers of devious serial child predators within the Church’s own ranks. The perpetrators included the likes of John Geoghan and Paul Shanley. Dominoes started to fall that day, and since then, they haven’t stopped falling for the Catholic hierarchy.
Now, in a development that might have seemed unthinkable ten years ago, the Irish government, which then recognized the Catholic Church as having a special, cherished role in Irish governance and society, has publicly lambasted the Vatican for endangering children due to its moral and legal failures. As more and more revelations—and more and more victims—emerged, it became plain that the Church hierarchy had created a hell on Earth for victims. This was yet another realization that, at one time, would have been as unthinkable as the notion that Islamicists would use the Twin Towers against us.
Thus, two enemies of our innocents entered center stage, one on the heels of the other. Either one of these characters—akin to Shakespeare’s most devilish villains—would have taken us down torturous paths into the dark heart of human arrogance, power, and subjugation. But they came together.
The Fallacy of the Jihadist Attackers, and of the Church Hierarchy: A Belief in God Does Not Make a Human Being Godly
Without question, these two have been foes of our cherished beliefs about religion. Hate-fueled jihadists and callous Catholic bishops did not fit into our Sunday school model of religion, where children sweetly drawn to Jesus were served cookies and juice once a week. For many, one or both stole comfort from religion—and replaced it with anger. Religion, we learned, could be criminally dangerous.
Some, like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Christopher Hitchens, saw this era as an opening to advocate atheism, or simply to advocate the absence of religion. But I think there is a deeper meaning in this confluence: It is a much-needed reminder that humans are not gods.
Put another way, a human affiliated with God is not necessarily godlier than one without.
And, when that is your perspective, you start to see other religious bad actors on stage. Al-Qaeda is not a solo actor, operating from a single site or even a single country. There are also the Taliban; the Iranian imams; and the mullahs who are seeking recruits in U.S. prisons. They are in Afghanistan, Pakistan, London, France, and the United States, among other places. Obviously, they were there before 9/11, but before then, we did not truly see them.
The Lesson of 9/11 and 1/7: Faith Can Too Easily Provide a Pretext for Terrible Crimes
Seeing through religious fervor and faith into criminal intent has made us safer, even if sadder. Our intelligence agencies are now on high alert for terrorism, and their communiqués are being heard in the highest levels of the U.S. government. They need not make the case to Americans and their elected representatives for the murderous intent of distant jihadists, but rather now have been charged with the responsibility of preventing future attacks on Americans.
We have found the language to describe these religious zealots: murderers, or more specifically, hard-hearted religious fanatics who hate law, order, and fundamental decency. We know now that that makes them the enemy of law and order. That means, ten years later, we are so much safer than we were on 9/10/01.
After the Boston Globe series on the Catholic Church and clergy child sex abuse broke, the news rippled across American dioceses—as the bishops’ hideous acts of child endangerment came to the forefront. It did not take long for the scales to fall from other religious believers’ eyes, as well. Other faith organizations could then spot the outlines of a cover-up of child sex abuse in their own ranks. And they did: From Orthodox Jews to Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to the Southern Baptists, among others. Virtually everywhere, clergy child abuse and attendant cover-ups were revealed.
Soon, judges and public officials—who, at one time, had not believed that religious organizations had systemic problems with child sex abuse in the first place—increasingly let cases against religious organizations go forward, because they saw the kind of nefarious and reckless conduct and policies that had earlier been hidden. Religious organizations’ public relations teams are now having to cede their vigorous, distracting public disavowals to the courts’ search for fact and even truth. Bishops who have wrapped themselves in canon law and one prevarication after another, have come to learn that they may no longer expect a pass merely because they say they acted out of what was “best” for their church. We are all now in a far better position to protect our children than we were on 1/6/02.
So what is the sum of 9/11 and 1/7? Today, we know more about how to protect ourselves and our children from actors who justify their criminal and immoral conduct with religious faith.
In turn, that knowledge has opened up more room for the law to work its justice against oppression. Over the ten years that have passed, the law has worked to wrap each of us in a cloak of protection we did not have in the days before 9/11, or before 1/7.
While 9/11 and 1/7 should shake our faith in mortals, the ten years hence should also increase our trust in the rule of law.