For most people over 30, the numbers 9/11 speak of a moment in our recent history, which we can truly describe as 'world changing'. Just as those who were somewhat older remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated, so many of us remember exactly where we were when the unbelievable news of the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon came through.
I was in the Free Church College in the heart of Edinburgh when an American missionary friend phoned me from Waverly station and asked if I had seen what was going on, and could I come down ASAP. We watched the unfolding events from a bar in the middle of the station. Even then it was abundantly clear that this was a genuinely world changing event.
Over this weekend, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, many people will be writing their own reflections, commentators will commentate, and TV stations will endlessly repeat what was the first major terrorist attack to be carried out on daytime TV. It is understandable and right that we reflect on this dramatic day – a day whose repercussions are still being felt and lived out today.
The many personal stories remind us of the value of human life – and the tragic heart-breaking loss. The iconic pictures of people jumping from 80 floors up still move and challenge. One of the most powerful things you will ever see is The Concert for New York, held afterwards – where The Who played a stormer of a set. I challenge anyone to watch Roger Daltrey singing "Behind Blue Eyes" as relatives hold up the pictures of firefighters and other 'first responders' who died, without tears.
Likewise, as they sang "Won't Get Fooled Again", in front of projected images of the Twin Towers, it is impossible not to feel the anger and the emotion. This was a traumatic event of course for those directly involved, but for many more of us – those who were spectators and those whose lives were to be directly impacted in the events following.
The consequences of 9/11 remain with us today; including the invasion of Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the increased persecution of the church in the Middle East, and the establishment of the surveillance society. The 9/11 attacks were a victory for the Islamist theology of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden chose the date because on 11 September 1683 the Polish cavalry, in what remains the largest cavalry charge in history, defeated the Ottomans and lifted the siege of Vienna.
This significant date, forgotten by most in the West, is considered the turning point which prevented Europe being overrun by Islam. Bin Laden had not forgotten and 9/11 was his attempt to reverse that.
Politicians were right to emphasise that the majority of Muslims did not support this kind of terrorism and to encourage people not to demonise every single Muslim. However, they were wrong to think this was just a small deviation from mainstream Islam. The fact is that these attacks were celebrated as a victory by many people throughout the Islamic world. They have served as an inspiration for numerous attacks ever since – and for the establishment of ISIS.
When New Zealand faced a terrorist attack from an ISIS supporter a couple of weeks ago, the politicians were very quick to point out that this was just an individual attack and nothing to do with an ideology. This was in sharp contrast to the horrific gun assault on the Christchurch Mosque in 2019 – which was immediately blamed on far-right white extremists (although to be fair if you had read the individual concerned's manifesto, it could equally have been described as the first green eco-terrorist attack – seeking to rid the world of its overpopulation).
The point is that, in seeking to avoid unfairly blaming a whole group of people, the West's politicians have struggled to understand and to come to terms with, the threat posed by Islamist ideology and terrorism. It appears that there is no middle ground between believing that this has nothing to do with Islam or that every Muslim is a potential terrorist. I suspect we will get fooled again.
Meanwhile 9/11 marks the beginning of an era where conspiracy theories became more mainstream. There had been conspiracy theories before (who shot JFK? The moon landings were faked, etc) but they had always been fringe. 9/11 ushered in a whole new era of conspiracy theorists.
Now the dramatic pictures, combined with the rise of social media, meant that many thought they were experts. It was astonishing how many people just knew, because they had 'examined the evidence' (i.e. seen a YouTube video) that this was an Israeli plot, or the Bush administration seeking to start a war for oil, or Bill Gates and the illuminati! Now we all live with endless conspiracy theories – and with the decline of mainstream media and the increasing distribution of 'fake news', sometimes it becomes even harder to get to the truth.
When all truth is relative, when truth is whatever you feel it to be, then conspiracy theories can quickly take on the appearance of fact. And when you don't like a particular point of view you can just label it a conspiracy theory – ironically giving credence to those who are real conspiracy theorists. If everything is a conspiracy, then nothing is a conspiracy!
The establishment of the surveillance society – where governments took powers in order to 'protect' people - has also led to the increased weaponization of fear. Not only by those who seek to demonise the 'other' – it has been ever thus – but by political authorities. In order to defeat 'terrorism', governments have used powers to stifle dissent and to deal with opponents.
Most of all, the use of fear as a psychological weapon is one that has bred chickens which will come home to roost. None of this is new; it's just that with new technology in a globalised world it can be used in a more effective and damaging way.
What should the Church have to say about all this? Sadly, far too often we just reflect the politics and the views of the culture we swim in. For example, Church leaders will on the one hand warn about Islamophobia, and on the other tell us that we are about to be turned into a Caliphate.
Surely, we should be concerned about the bigger picture. How do we deal with the lies, the fears, the evil of what happened – and continues to happen? Let's turn to another 9:11 - these words in the Gospel of Luke: "He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God and healed those who needed healing." That is what we need to do. We need to go counter-cultural – welcome people, speak about the Kingdom of God and bring healing. We must proclaim the One who is the Truth, preach the Gospel of hope, and defeat evil with the good news of Christ.
In 1999, I recall standing near the top of the Empire State building, looking out to the spectacular view which included the Twin Towers in all their glory. I was amazed at them but then the words of Isaiah 40:22-24 came to mind:
"He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff."
I thought 'these towers will one day be gone. And all they represent. But the word of the Lord will endure forever'. Of course I couldn't foresee what would tragically unfold. At that time, I was just a young preacher struggling with the burdens of pastoral ministry in a post- Christian secular culture.
But these words, combined with that awesome background, inspired me and they still do. It's not by might (whether military, political, technological, financial or political) that this world will be saved – it is by the preaching of the Word. "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint." (Isaiah 40:31)
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.