(Editor’s note: James Buchanan is director of the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier.)
In the days and weeks immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we all experienced a range of intense emotions. From the initial shock, we moved through sadness, grief and fear to confusion and anger. Some of us thought that this great national tragedy needed to be a time to begin a new process of reflection about America and a new conversation about our past and our future, and about the values upon which those should be founded. The prayer services and dialogue sessions which began in earnest in those days quickly faded as the country set itself on a course of justice, which too often resembled revenge, embarking on a new “war on terror,” which has led us to Afghanistan and Iraq and finds us engaged in the impossible task of nation-building all over the world. After 10 years, we are emotionally, spiritually and financially exhausted, we feel less secure than ever and we know that American values, leadership and prestige are in question, if not under full-scale attack, all around the globe.
It is time to begin a new national conversation—the one which we should have begun 10 years ago but for which we clearly were not ready. These are precarious days for the United States. Economically, we face a situation that, regardless of what the politicians of every party tell us, has no real fix, at least not one that we have yet found. Business as usual will not solve our problems this time because they are too deep and too systemic. Both the market and the government seem to be wholly corrupted by greed and power. How do we turn to either? What we know is that the middle class is suffering the brunt of the economic downturn; our cities are decaying; our families and communities are disintegrating. Samuel Huntington’s prediction of a “clash of civilizations” seems to be coming true, even if not as he predicted. The U.S. faces the challenges of China on the one hand and the Muslim world on the other. The developing countries are rightly demanding to be heard and to have equal opportunity. Many choose to believe that 9/11 had mostly to do with religion. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was about the use of religion in profoundly non-religious ways and for non-religious purposes. 9/11 was not about religion, it was about a global political and economic struggle that we are right in the middle of. We all feel this deep sense that we are in a time of seemingly unending crisis. Clearly it is time for a new conversation.
Out of crisis comes hope because it is in times of crisis that we are driven to the struggle of discovering again what we truly hold to be of value. What is the United States and who are we as Americans? How do we honor America’s commitment to religious liberty and pluralism? How do we balance our democratic aspirations and our economic aspirations? What should America’s role and character in the world be? Have we lost the sense of who we really are?
It is time to come back home and look inwardly, to discover those core values that will renew our communities and ourselves. Instead of responding to this period of crisis and stress with the strained and shrill voices of ideology and hatred, we need to find that national voice that strives to speak as “we the people.” We need to talk about and revel in the diversity of our nation, not use that diversity as a cause for fear and bigotry. We need to have a serious conversation about the relationship between liberty and security—liberty for all and security for all—and the sacrifices we, each of us, are willing to make to ensure both. We need to be in serious, constructive dialogue with China, the Muslim world and the developing South, we need them as partners not adversaries. We need to figure out how to transform the “clash” of civilizations into a collaboration of civilizations. All of this demands a new global conversation, but first it demands a new national conversation.
The sad truth is that we no longer have a national conversation; we have a national shouting match. A shouting match in which no one listens, no minds are ever changed and all that seems to result from the shouting is more strident ideology and greater divisions. So before we can really have a national conversation about what is of real value to our country and to our lives, we first have to commit to even having a national conversation. We have to be willing to risk our presuppositions and our prejudices. We have to be open to the possibility of being transformed by such a conversation. We have to listen.
Ten years after, let’s use this moment to begin anew, to commit to a new conversation, to honor this most significant moment of our past by reflecting deeply upon our values, our identity and our hopes for the future.