Cheap Seats 2017
9-11 and the Politics of Certainty - 09/13
By Rich Trzupek
As we once again remember the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the answer to the question “why did it happen?” has particular relevance to Americans today, as angry rhetoric and violence across the political spectrum continues to grow. The root cause of 9-11 is the same as the root causes of angry political divisions we are wrestling with today: the hubris that comes from absolute certainty.
It is famously said that there are only two things we can be certain of in this life: death and taxes. There is a great deal of truth in that statement. Tyrants and religious fanatics believe that they can never be wrong. That’s a demeaning and dangerous attitude. Every human being on earth owes the rest of his or her fellow occupants of this planet the respect to consider alternate points of view and the humility of character to acknowledge that they just might, sometimes, be wrong. When we stray from that model, bad things inevitably happen.
The problem of certainty is not unique to Islam. There are fundamentalist Christians and Jews who believe they have a direct connection to www.DivineWill.com as well, but they’re a largely peaceful, if annoying, minority in each case. Fundamentalism and certainty are the exception, not the rule, among Christians and Jews because neither the Bible nor the Torah is considered to be the direct Word of God by the majority of the faithful. Rather, most believe that each book contains Divinely-Inspired messages, expressed by authors subject to human failings in their expression of those messages.
Officially, Islam does not provide such an escape hatch. The Quran is the Exact Word of God, as delivered by the Archangel Gabriel to an illiterate Arab merchant who passed them along to a scribe to be recorded for all time. You don’t mess with the Exact Word of God.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East. There are many Muslims who don’t buy into the Exact Word of God message of the Quran, but who rather apply the rationally “pick and choose” approach to their Holy Book that most Christians and Jews use. However, many – probably most in my estimation – honestly believe the Quran is the Exact Word of God. That certainty doesn’t always lead to violence, but when Muslim fundamentalists do commit act of terror, certainty is always the root cause.
As a Catholic I describe my belief in terms of faith. Faith is spiritual. Certainty is temporal. When we talk about faith we delve into a part of existence that, by definition, we cannot truly understand and therefore cannot explain in the secular, temporal terms of certainty. The men who took over those four airliners on 9-11 did so in the absolute certainty that they were doing God’s Will and punishing sinners who refused to accept their beliefs as the only possible truth.
And so it is in our toxic political atmosphere today. When one refuses to consider the possibility that one might be mistaken, or that someone else’s point of view may have value, there can be no tolerance. We cannot have a discussion when we are shouting at each other. And, to the extent that we describe our political divide using the word “sides”, both of those sides are at fault. There are exceptions on both sides too, but from the leaders of both parties down to the masked, violent protestors storming the streets, there are far too many people letting angry certainty that they are right and everyone else is wrong cloud not only their judgement, but their duty as a human being to respect and treat others as they themselves want to be treated.
The angry certainty of a few zealots brought us the tragedy of 9-11 and it continues to infect the world in the forms of terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda. As we try to find new ways to defuse that angry certainty abroad, we should try to stop the spread of angry certainty at home.
We are all in this together. We are all brothers and sisters in our common journey on this planet, and every person deserves respect whether he or she agrees with you or not.