Americans ‘in a Different Place Spiritually Than We Were’ on 9/11

The fall of Kabul marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, stirring shame, self-examination and calls for spiritual renewal back home.

Firemen, police officers, and workers lock arms while observing a moment of silence during a short interfaith memorial service held at the World Trade Center disaster site 11 October, 2001 in New York.
Firemen, police officers, and workers lock arms while observing a moment of silence during a short interfaith memorial service held at the World Trade Center disaster site 11 October, 2001 in New York. (photo: Gary Friedman / AFP/Getty)

PHILADELPHIA — Father Eric Banecker, parochial administrator of St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, was in seventh grade on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida militants hijacked three planes and attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — murdering more than 2,900 innocent people. A fourth plane commandeered by the terrorists, United Flight 93, crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, just hours from his home, killing all 44 people on board. 

Now age 32, Father Banecker vividly remembers the events of that shocking day and the deep sense of national unity it provoked.  

Sent home early from his parochial school, he watched the unfolding spectacle replayed on television: the planes attacking the towers, the first responders rushing to Ground Zero, clergy giving general absolution, and members of Congress singing God Bless America at the Capitol.  

Today, two decades later, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks and the fall of Kabul have stirred more complicated emotions.  

As Americans come “full circle,” grappling with the tragic coda of the war on terror in Afghanistan and Washington’s failed exercise there in “nation-building,” the priest did not attempt to second-guess President Joe Biden’s controversial decision to order the withdrawal of U.S. troops before U.S. personnel and citizens, along with Afghan allies promised safe passage, had been fully evacuated.  

Instead, Father Banecker’s attention is focused on the home front. He is worried about the spiritual and moral health of his own country, buffeted by a palpable loss of national unity and a decline in respect for its leading institutions, Church and state.   

“I can’t speak to the reality on the ground in Afghanistan,” said Father Banecker. “Four different presidents have presided over the American deployment in Afghanistan, and I am sure the decision to withdraw our troops was difficult and gut-wrenching.  

“But as an American who has lived through the last 20 years, our country seems to be in a different place spiritually than we were then” and in desperate need of “renewal.” 

Well before Americans learned of the sudden implosion of the Afghan military and government as the U.S. troop drawdown accelerated, the priest had witnessed signs of this growing malaise in his own Philadelphia neighborhood and had studied national surveys that confirmed his concerns.  

“We are a demoralized society: Public morality is held up as a negative, and the idea that there is a common moral code either does not exist or exists in a warped way,” he said. 

“People are just sick and tired of being sick and tired. They are beaten down by the Twitter wars and the real wars and the disintegration of our society. We see this in the deaths of despair, the rising suicide rate, people struggling with addiction, and the lack of trust in institutions, including the Church.” 

“All this prevents people from moving forward to experience the abundance that God has offered us,” he said.  

 

Evil Won’t Have Final Say  

As the nation reflected back on the 2001 terror attacks on U.S. soil and took stock of the events in Afghanistan, ending a war that took at least 2,448 American service members’ lives and cost more than $2 trillion, some scholars, authors and veterans expanded on the priest’s misgivings while others offered more nuanced views.  

The varying perspectives spotlighted the chasm separating Americans who experienced the war on terror firsthand and those who read about it in the news. Yet most Catholics who spoke with the Register were united in their belief that Washington must fulfill its commitment to the Afghan translators and others who had worked with the U.S. government and military. This cause, they said, could also serve to bring a divided nation together as it struggled to forge a common purpose.   

Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, among the most long-serving chaplains ministering to first responders at Ground Zero, was profoundly shaped by the events of that day and the friendships formed in the ashes of the World Trade Center.  

“We had seen evil at its worst, but also goodness at its best,” Father Jordan told the Register. 

“We were humbled to our knees that day, but the terrorists did not break our spirit. We rose to the occasion, as New Yorkers and members of the global community,” he said, recalling a Japanese team of firefighters who traveled across the world to work alongside New York firefighters.  

Within days of the attacks, a construction worker approached Father Jordan and asked if he wanted to see “God’s house.” The worker showed the priest a steel beam formed in the shape of a cross, the kind used to connect floors in the trade center.   

“This beam was standing at a 25-degree angle, with a cloth on the side. I and many of the construction workers immediately interpreted it as a cross and a sign that God had not abandoned us at Ground Zero.”  

The priest “made sure” the cross stayed at Ground Zero, battling an atheist group that sought to remove it. In 2014, the cross was moved to the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.  

For Father Jordan and the workers who gathered around it for prayer and Mass, the gigantic cross affirmed Pope St. John Paul II’s message of radical Christian hope offered in the wake of the attack. “Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say,” said the Pope. “Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it.” 

 

Deepening Divisions 

Later, when Congress authorized military use of force in Afghanistan, Father Jordan believed the U.S. campaign to root out the Taliban, the militant group that harbored Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, and other members of the al-Qaida terrorist group that participated in the operation, was morally “justified.” 

“They were trying to go to the source of evil,” he told the Register, while noting that he disagreed with the subsequent 2003 invasion of Iraq, following flawed intelligence reports alleging that weapons of mass destruction were in the hands of Saddam Hussein. 

Over the years, the priest, who presently serves as pastor of St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, has stayed in close touch with high-school friends who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many were dismayed by the chaotic withdrawal in Kabul and worried that the Afghans who worked with them would be abandoned. But he also expressed concerns about the deep divisions in his own country that had worsened during the pandemic, even as so many Americans again stepped up to selflessly serve their country. 

“On 9/11, we knew who the enemy was,” he said. “Now, we’re not sure: Is it the vaccinated or the unvaccinated? There is dissension between political parties and ethnic groups.”  

Tom Myerson, a retired Marine captain, age 32, shared the dismay and “shame” of many veterans watching the events in Kabul. But he also said it did not come as a complete surprise. 

“Many of my former colleagues and friends who have worked closely with the Afghan military and government said it might fall apart if we left,” Myerson told the Register.  

At the same time, he questioned whether the majority of Americans have “paid attention” to the prosecution of the war on terror, though the killing of bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan made headlines. 

His comments exposed the disconnect between military and civilian life, leaving some wounded warriors doubting whether their sacrifices were appreciated or even noticed by their fellow Americans. At the same time, Myerson remains inspired by some of the extraordinary leaders he served under and still speaks with pride at the high standards governing the conduct of American troops. 

“In Iraq and Syria I got to see that we bent over backward in the military to follow the rule of law in war,” he said.  

“It could be frustrating when it seemed too restrictive, but, overall, you felt confident in what you were doing. You were proud that you are part of a country that follows the rule of law, in complete contrast to our enemy, who murdered captives and turned women into sex slaves,” he said, in a reference to the Islamic State, the terrorist organization that established a “caliphate” straddling parts of Iraq and Syria and conducted a campaign of genocide and rape against religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis.  

 

Patriotic Duty and Leadership 

Anne Hendershott, director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, recalled the remarkable sense of patriotic duty that inspired her own son, and other young Americans shaped by the events on 9/11, to step forward “to defend our country, to do what had to be done so that this would not happen again.” 

Her son graduated from West Point and then deployed to Iraq. She prayed unceasingly for his safe return and was relieved that he did not sustain serious injuries. Since then, she has been deeply moved by his regular visits to Arlington National Cemetery, where many of his fallen comrades are buried. 

But she also worries that this “sense of patriotic duty has lessened” over the past decade, in part, because Americans no longer trust the government. And watching a defiant President Biden go on national television to defend his plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Kabul, she yearned for the commander in chief to take more responsibility for his decision and not blame President Donald Trump for forging a flawed agreement with the Taliban that secured a May 2021 deadline for the U.S. exit.  

“We need real leadership to pull us together,” she said, adding that she was inspired by Pope Francis’ call for prayers to pave the way for peace and dialogue in Afghanistan. She also welcomed the chorus of Americans calling on the Biden administration to step up its efforts to evacuate and resettle Afghans who worked with the U.S.  

“Progressives and conservatives may not agree on the cause of this debacle, but everyone agrees that we as a nation can’t sit idly by. At Steubenville, we are offering our Masses for people who are trapped there.”  

Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America, believes serious missteps during the war on terror, particularly President George W. Bush’s decision to green-light the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, contributed to the public’s deepening cynicism and mistrust of its political leaders.  

And as recriminations continue in the wake of the Kabul drawdown, Lewis believes U.S. citizens should take much more responsibility for the state of the country, politically, culturally and morally. 

It is past time, he said, for Americans to spend less time on social media consuming political memes that pass for actual discourse and get directly involved in their own communities, where they can actually make a difference.  

 

Most Important Thing 

Churches can play a large, more creative role, too, he said. “The Church’s business is to instruct people about the place of politics in the greater scheme of things,” he observed, while noting that the decline of organized religion has fueled divisions that were once bridged by a common faith and morality. 

“One of the crucial things Christianity teaches is that politics is not the most important thing. Politics is a lot better when people understand that.” 

Kathryn Jean Lopez, the director of National Review Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture and Civil Society, touched on this point as she reflected on the surge of faith that rose up in the wake of the terror attacks in New York two decades ago. 

“One of the things I remember best is how people flocked to churches,” Lopez told the Register.  

“I fear we’ve done something quite the opposite in response to COVID-19. Our churches were closed. Livestream Mass became a thing.”  

“What about the Real Presence? What about presence?” she asked. 

“We need to remember the incarnational aspects of our faith.”

Back in Philadelphia, Father Banecker has looked for opportunities to increase the visibility of his own parish community beyond the church walls. As the neighborhood struggles with a cascade of crises, from the pandemic to a national reckoning on race, he has gathered his flock for the Rosary on the front steps of the church, in one case with protesters demonstrating nearby. 

“People offer political solutions, secular solutions” for what ails Americans, he said. “But our country does best when its citizens are people of faith and bring that to the public square.  

“We welcome people of all faiths. And as Catholics, we have to return to prayer and the sacraments. If we want a renewal of our government, then our families, communities and parishes have to be places of vibrant faith.”  

“A culture war is not the answer,” he said. “The answer is the Gospel, which transforms culture.”  

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