9/11 has become the emblem of all our fears not because it represents a national security failure or because it exposed poorly crafted foreign policy.
From our perspective the most terrifying dimension of the threat posed by al Qaeda is not its destructive capacity but its operatives’ casual disregard for life. Like moths drawn towards a flame, death offers for them some irresistible allure.
In contrast, we see our own fear of death as a healthy expression of our love of life. Indeed we see death as signifying more than anything else the termination of life.
There’s a contradiction here which reveals the fundamentally secular nature of contemporary American society — a secularism masked by the ostentatious religious identifications to which so many Americans cling.
Strip away their diverse forms of worship and their often conflicting systems of belief, and each religion has at its core the same function: it provides the individual and society a means to face mortality and render it meaningful.
If you want to determine the degree from which any society has moved away from its historical religious orientation, there is no easier way than to look at how it handles death.
A death-denying society is one that finds little comfort in the promise of an afterlife. It invests most of its faith in this world in the absence of any real confidence about what might follow.
Consider the example of America’s religious fanatic-of-the-week, Pastor Terry Jones. In the face of death threats he professed his willingness to die in defense of his beliefs, yet he did so with a 40-caliber pistol strapped to his waist.
We say “One Nation Under God” as though we are guided by a transcendent perspective, yet more often we seem to worship the nation itself.
The holy book in which so many Americans profess their faith says quite clearly:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.
This, like so many others, is a throughly un-American Biblical teaching and where American values and Biblical values conflict, the outcome is predictable.
Our fears reign in this land — the place we have stored all our treasures — which is why, however much we spend on defense, we still struggle to feel safe.
We could instead endeavor to become less afraid.