Among the Intellectualoids

America the Brutal

A peace activist nun declares that America lost its soul after 9/11. Bill Moyers would concur.

By 9.1.06

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WASHINGTON -- Radical nun Joan Chittister remembers a better America before 9/11.

Writing in the current issue of the Religious Left periodical Sojourners, of which she is a contributing editor, the activist sister frets that the U.S. has responded to 9/11 with paranoid security concerns and police state tactics.

A Bendictine sister from Erie, Chittister is a long-time "peace" activist," i.e. critic of U.S. national interests across the decades. When not involved in intra-Catholic disputes over the "patriarchy" and advocating women's ordination, she co-chairs the United Nations-related Global Peace Initiative of Women, which is a "worldwide network of women peace builders."

"In one blow, 19 radical religious zealots with a memory for Crusades and a hatred for the United States turned the world upside down," Chittister writes. "Or we did. It's very hard to tell five years later who really did more of the turning."

Chittister laments that it is "hard to tell" what exactly were the "specific concerns" of the 9/11 terrorists, and few "seemed to care." She seems blithely unaware of 5 years of endless analysis of these various points. And perhaps she prefers not to acknowledge the pretty specific "concerns" that motivated al Qaeda, based on its own voluminous statements: removal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, abandonment of Israel, the release of all Muslim prisoners everywhere, and ultimately, the return of Spain and the Balkans to rule by an Islamic caliphate, among other ambitious territorial requests.

No, the nun regrets that our hardnosed country was uninterested in these "concerns" and instead angrily focused on "retaliation," with the target of our wrath being inconsequential. "Anybody would do," she pithily observed.

Thanks to America's irrational invasion of Iraq, for reasons completely unrelated to 9/11 she insists, the U.S. is now a nation "under siege." The evidence? Elderly widows and small boys must now remove their shoes in airport security lines, Chittister complains. For more serious proof, she writes that "we, too, pick up people in grand random sweeps, call them terrorists, hold them without charge, detain them without lawyers, cage them like animals, and fight with one another over whether or not we are a 'Christian' country."

Chittister does not offer other examples of the police state that has supposedly descended. Nonetheless, she insists, "We have changed the Constitution (or ignored it) to allow domestic spying. We have changed the country; stripped it of its liberties and enlarged the powers of the administration to such an extent that we face the prospect of being governed more by the king of a republic than by the president of a democracy."

Even more somberly, she notes, "we have become invaders, torturers, paranoid partners in global destabilization." The Iraqis who supposedly would "meet us with flowers singing in the streets" have instead killed 2,500 Americans. "Flush with weapons, we are now too poor to afford education grants or social security or universal medical insurance." Evidently she is unfamiliar with the rates of increase in social spending under the Bush Administration or, more likely, finds even those double digit levels of increase inadequate.

Not content with reckless poverty and a police state at home, the U.S. has divided the world into "armed and arming camps" and "accelerated a new kind of arms race with smaller countries of the world intent now on getting nuclear weapons themselves." After all, did not these countries get their nuclear notions from America's concept of "Mutually Assured Destruction," she asks.

Worst of all, Chittister complains, we have "traded in 'America the Beautiful' -- whom much of the world revered, or at least respected -- for America the Brutal, whom the world now mistrusts." The Twin Towers were not all that collapsed on 9/11. "What went down is the soul of a country that once put principle over power," she mourns.

"Is such a country Christian?" Chittister asks. "Only if it, too, rises from the values that have died in it."

IN A FAWNING INTERVIEW WITH Bill Moyers on PBS two years ago, Chittister faulted the Religious Right as the culprit for an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. "When you begin to use religious criteria and translate them into law, into God's call for Armageddon, why are we in Iraq now? God apparently wants us there. Well, not my Jesus," Chittister commented.

Chittister wondered how the U.S. could be "really moral" while it is "killing mothers" in Iraq. In an attempted clever put-down of pro-life religionists, she sagely observed, "I'm absolutely certain that some of the people that we're killing over there are pregnant women. Now what do you do? That's military abortion."

The problem with all of these conservative religionists is their "dogmatism" and their preoccupation with "the truth," Chittister told a vigorously nodding Bill Moyers. Needless to point out, Chittister, like others on the Religious Left, have their own insistent dogmatisms by which they judge the faithful. For Chittister, America is not "Christian" because it is not a pacifist social welfare state that is subordinated to global governance.

Chittister's tears over the "country that once put principle over power" are not very persuasive. In her eyes, when was America ever noble or worth defending? During the Reagan military build-up? Under Nixon's machinations, or the 50-year reign of J. Edgar Hoover as the nation's top policeman? Was it during Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War, or JFK's Bay of Pigs, or Truman's atomic attacks, or FDR's incarceration of Japanese-Americans, while firebombing German and Japanese cities? And until relatively recently, was not America racist, segregationist, and slave-holding?

Like all of humanity, America is sinful. Thanks, in part, to its higher religious impulses, it is also generous, magnanimous, and aspiring to goals of human equality and justice. For left-wing religionists like Chittister, humanity is noble, but America is uniquely sinful, in constant need of redemption from superior cultures.

The ostensibly chilling and vengeful U.S. response to 9/11 was, for Sister Joan Chittister, really just a continuation of America's innately dark character. The U.S. is an extension of the same patriarchal authoritarianism that also oppresses her church, she no doubt believes. It is a very convoluted worldview and, on many levels, the very inverse of the Christianity that she presumably sincerely professes.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.