The enduring lesson of 9/11: We are one human family

by Sarah Christian

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Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation this week. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.

The images of desperate refugees fleeing possible extermination in Kosovo left a searing imprint on my mind. It didn't matter where they were from. Their religion didn't matter. Nothing about them mattered, except this: They were human beings -- suffering, vulnerable, and facing a grave threat to their most fundamental rights. And I knew then, as a high school student, that their lives and their dignity were connected to my own. I didn't use the world "solidarity," but I felt it. And I sensed that there was an ethical obligation to alleviate their suffering.

The 9/11 attacks offered a similar lesson: As the Rev. Martin Luther Jing Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Salvation is only possible in and through community, as we rely on each other to help build the kingdom of God. Our law demands that we love both God and others -- all others. It is a universal law for a Catholic faith. It is extraordinarily demanding and takes us far beyond our biological impulses. But it is the path to freedom, justice and communion.

Those who thought the injustices faced by the Taliban's victims were the people of Afghanistan's own problem came to see the poverty and utter foolishness of this immoral isolationism. Attacks on little girls who are simply trying to attend school should wound you, whether there is a terrorist attack or not, but the 9/11 attacks showed that callous indifference often exposes you to direct harm in this interconnected world.

One might wish to ignore Bashar al-Assad's mass murder or the Islamic State's barbarism or the continued crimes against humanity in Darfur. And one might think, What business is it of ours to worry about injustice in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Ukraine, or the Central African Republic? Or about attacks against Muslims in Burma or the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe? Or the seemingly endless war between the Israelis and Palestinians? Shouldn't we focus on the injustice in our neighborhoods and local communities, or even among our fellow Christians?

The attacks of 9/11 highlight one of the many problems associated with this type of sectarianism. Those who believe in creating a more just world cannot ignore those suffering abroad. There is no location on Earth excluded from solidarity. There can be no place where we can justly have a "human-rights-free zone." National borders are not meaningless, but they can never negate human dignity, and they should never act as barriers to solidarity.

This sense of universal brotherhood and sisterhood is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling or an emotional sentiment. It creates moral imperatives. Some of these are embedded in international organizations, such as the United Nations, and international treaties. But the U.N. still does not come close to reflecting this commitment to solidarity and universal human rights. In China and Russia, the U.N. has two repressive regimes with vetoes on its Security Council that violate these rights and protect some of the most murderous regimes on the planet. One day, we will hopefully have international law that protects the dignity of all, together with a U.N. that has the enforcement mechanisms to protect the innocent, but that day has not arrived, nor is it imminent.

So, as members of a global community -- one human family -- we have to consider what we can do to protect the vulnerable. As citizens, we must push our national governments to reject nationalism and isolationism, to accept refugees, to deliver food to those facing famine, to provide assistance to those seeking shelter in a neighboring country, and to protect the innocent from crimes against humanity. We must press our governments to help alleviate poverty abroad, to promote human rights, and to support human development that moves toward the global common good.

As Americans, we live in the most powerful country in the world, militarily and economically. The post-9/11 era highlights the limits of that power, particularly when we act with hubris and without foresight. And solidarity inevitably demands sacrifice. There is no love without sacrifice. But American Catholics and every other American who believes in solidarity and global justice has an obligation as citizens to help those on the margins and to require that our government does the same.   

When the Rwandan genocide was taking place, a number of victims expressed the belief that the U.S. would see the evil being perpetrated and stop it. Instead, perhaps a million people died. In Kosovo, we justly acted to prevent genocide. Often, American leadership provides the key to preventing mass murder or mass starvation. As citizens who believe in solidarity, when the international community fails to protect the most vulnerable, we should press our country to act when it can do so justly. That might mean delivering food, helping refugees, pressuring foreign governments, or even the just use of force.

The 9/11 attacks show us that ignoring human dignity in Afghanistan was neither moral nor wise. Much time has been spent this summer and in the past highlighting the incompatibility of social libertarianism and economic libertarianism with Catholicism, but foreign policy libertarianism is equally incompatible. Each represents a turning away from human suffering, an impoverished understanding of the role of government, and a failure to promote policies that are essential to achieving the global common good.

[Sarah Christian writes for Millennial, where she is a copy editor.]

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