Reflections from afar, September 11, 2001


Dr Paul Barnett, who was in Athens leading a ‘Biblelands’ tour of the Middle East on September 11, travelled to the Muslim nation of Turkey soon after the terrorist attacks and has recently returned to Sydney. Here, he shares his reflections on the disaster, on what the Middle Eastern world is making of the situation, and on how September 11, 2001 may serve as “a ‘wake up call’ to our sick western, formerly Christian culture.”

September 11th 2001 will remain etched in human history, not only by the fiery cinematic images but more particularly in the pain of a nation and of those who mourn loved ones from many nations including our own.

The US Leader declared that we – the US and the freedom loving nations – are ‘at war.’ But against whom or what are we at war ? Against terrorism and a ‘prime suspect.’ True, but not precisely true. Not all terrorism was incarnated in those four suicide bomber pilots and their murderous colleagues. Neither the terrorist IRA, for example, nor the terrorist Kurds of Turkey were involved. ‘Terrorism’ as a category is too broad. Then was it Middle East terrorism, Islamic terrorism ? Again not precisely. Most leaders from the Middle East nations have united in condemning these acts. Likewise many many Muslims, whether in the US or worldwide. Then surely this terrorism was inspired by poverty in the greater part of the Middle East, as I heard left wing commentator Tony Wedgwood-Benn say. Poverty may be the recruiting ground but the perpetrators were educated, used to western ways and were flush with cash.

So who were they and why did they do it ?

As for me, I don’t think we yet know enough to say who they were or are. Biblelands Tour in the Middle East.

I was in Athens killing time waiting for our tour bus when the first horrific pictures burst on to the TV screen in the hotel room. Our friends and family in Australia were asleep as this unimaginable news awaited their early mornings. We rang, of course. They were extremely worried as the next country for our Biblelands 2001 group to visit was Muslim Turkey.

‘Probably safer than Australia,’ I reassured them. Not empty words; I meant it. From past experience of visits in Turkey I knew that these people who love Australians would not regard me or our group as enemies. And so it proved as we journeyed up the western coast from Ephesus to Istanbul.

As we stood in Shrapnel Valley on the Gallipoli peninsula reflecting on the quarter million Turks and allied invaders buried around us in those sandy hills we prayed that our world would not again be plunged into another bout of senseless killing. We read and took comfort from the Apocalyptist’s promise of a New Heaven and New Earth when there would be no more pain or tears.

What did our Turkish Muslim guide make of it all? A young, learned and sensitive man he lamented the shocking loss of life in New York and Washington. He was immediately affected, of course. Six month’s tour groups – his only livelihood – were cancelled overnight. The tourist ships moored in the Aegean would send nobody ashore to see the wonders of Ephesus, Priene, Miletus or Didyma. He would wait in vain on the docks of Kusadasi.

Did we feel unsafe in the streets of Istanbul or the Spice Market or the Grand Bazaar ? Not for a moment. Were we hissed or stared at ? Not once.

Just the same noisy vendors selling cheap postcards and transistor batteries. Pushy as ever as they battled for a few Lira to stay alive. Half a million of them in this old city where east meets west. But unfriendly or menacing ? In no way. I would happily go back tomorrow.

I asked our guide for further comment. He was reticent. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘we have lost tens of thousands of our people in Kurdish terrorism.’ He spoke of close friends and relatives. ‘No one has spared a thought for us,’ he said. ‘Don’t misunderstand me. I am appalled at what happened September 11th. But terrorism didn’t begin then.’ True enough, I thought, but this hasn’t been a one way street either.

Reflections from Afar

In our hotel rooms at night we watched CNN and BBC World televise these events around the clock. So what were my thoughts as I watched all this unfold a long way from home in the Middle East, that part of the world from which the rest of the world thinks this evil originated ?

I felt profound sympathy for those who mourned lost loved ones and immense regard for those brave passengers who attempted to re-take the aircraft destined to bomb itself into the White House. How unspeakably wicked that innocent office workers in the Pentagon or the Trade Centre and holidaying sightseers should be brutalized in this way, with no warning and no declaration of war.

I regretted that GW Bush used the word ‘Crusade’ in his televised address. I cannot believe his advisers and speech writers could have been so unwise as to foreshadow a new ‘Crusade.’ In all the years since the first crusades we Christians have been trying to ‘live down’ those quixotic follies of the middle ages. As often as not those ‘Christian’ crusaders were plunderous

murderers. I thought of the brilliant Saladin and his victories over European knights in clanking armour at the battle of Hattin just a few miles from Nazareth. No one fights so fiercely as those who defend home and hearth. And those ‘Christian’ Crusaders were invaders as the New Crusaders will be invaders of home and hearth. It’s no secret that the President is a ‘born again-er,’ a Christian crusader of the new millennium. May the Lord deliver us from a further bout of Christian-Muslim ‘crusades.’ The big losers would be the Christian minorities.

I prayed that these events would at last force all parties in the Land of Israel to come to their senses and forge a peace based on justice and equity rather than who happens to have the tanks, helicopters and F16’s. I am convinced that the perception of injustice suffered by Palestinians lies at the root of this present distress. So long as Eretz Israel remains locked

in this unequal conflict, the terrorists will feel morally justified in engaging in violent acts against those who perpetrate perceived injustice towards Arabs in West Bank and Gaza. The martyr-pilots appear to be driven by the same fury as the martyr-car bombers in Tel Aviv and for the same reasons.

One scary scenario is that moral outrage will drive them to new martyrdoms buoyed up sense of righteous justification. New martyrdoms, that is, against us. Us here in Australia.

I prayed, too, that the US Administration gets its response right, especially that it refrains from overkill and an excess of force. That must involve some kind of ‘due process’ in regard to the prime suspect. The President’s declared intention to bring him in ‘dead or alive’ was understandable in the heat of the moment but inappropriate. All that the US stands for in terms of justice, freedom and democracy must not be lost or the terrorists will have had their way.

I hoped profoundly that the military response would be clinical and effective and few casualties – like Desert Storm. But we all know that will not be possible. Rugged Afghanistan has been the graveyard for all who have attempted to conquer it, whether Alexander, the British or the Russians. For if the pending campaign fails the televised body bags will quickly force our politicians to cut losses and yet again get out with tails between legs. Such defeat would raise the stakes terrifyingly and tell wicked men that they have won and that the world is theirs for the taking. We will be at war but we will not know against whom or why. Nothing and nobody will be safe anywhere.

I sensed profound contrast between these martyrs and their (wickedly wrongheaded) seriousness and the shallow triviality of our modern entertainment culture. It was weird to flick TV channels. On CNN was the image of the jet plane boring into the high rise tower inspired by the mad martyr zeal of the hijackers On another was an utterly unserious, silly game show flanked by coiffured models. On another was grinning Bruce Willis saving the world from some terrorists. Where are you Bruce Willis ? Harrison Ford, we need you. Where are you Hollywood in our hour of need ? The celluloid world is dangerous illusion not reality. The collapse of the World Trade Centre is not illusion but all too true reality. Maybe September 11 showed up illusion for what it is and that Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford are only actors and that the world of make believe can’t ever help anybody against anything that is out there. Maybe September 11 is a ‘wake up call’ to our sick western, formerly Christian culture that is now committed to nothing much except greed and pleasure to get serious about life, just behaviour and about God the just judge ?

Paul Barnett
September 2001