Ten years after Sept. 11, 2001, the world has a different face, a wholly new (well, fairly ancient) set of problems, and above all, a new promise. The Soviet Union seems to have slid into historical darkness mostly unmourned. The Arab nations are in great and maybe hopeful turmoil — “the Arab Spring,” many call it. Ten years from now, its fruit may be marvelous to behold. Or it may prove to have been a false spring.
Even sharp critics must observe, though, that such a hopeful emergence of spring in the Middle East is what President Bush foresaw when in Afghanistan and Iraq, to enormous criticism, he started movements toward self-rule, renewed civil societies, new freedoms of communication with the outside world, democracy, and “natural rights.” But the harsh test of reality — the long-term success of these springtimes — has not yet been fully met. To give freedom a chance was my main hope in supporting President Bush — a chance, but not a guarantee.
The New Front Line of Intellectual Life in our Time
As I see things, the Catholic Church and with it the West during the past 150 years has endured the worst that atheistic totalitarian power could throw against it. Tens of millions were brutally punished, exiled, tortured, and kept for long, hungry years in thousands of concentration camps and gulags, millions of them most foully and horribly murdered. Thousands of churches were burned down, bulldozed, turned to purposefully defiling uses. Monks and nuns by the hundreds of thousands were driven into backbreaking exile and death, their millennial monasteries and convents turned into academies for the training of torturers and interrogators and goons.
The great struggle of the epoch since Marx and Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini has slid into the past.
Yet on Sept. 11, 2001, an even more ancient epochal struggle was reawakened, a struggle 1,500 years old. In 632, at the birth of Islam, all the basin of the Mediterranean Sea, from Jerusalem north to Ephesus and Constantinople, and south and east from Alexandria to Hippo and Toledo and up to the borders of France, was the glory of Christianity. That rim of faith also formed the proof that the Church of Jesus was so quickly planted in “the whole known world” that it was properly called “Catholic.”
Moreover, before the time of Constantine (and even for long thereafter), it had been implanted there without armies, but mostly among the poor (and the intellectuals), implanted peacefully by its witness to the caritas of God, and its intelligent arguments against the pagan classics. In 600 short years, Christianity rimmed the Mediterranean with small churches, cathedrals, monasteries, learning, and liturgy.
In 100 amazing years, the armies of Islam had advanced in both directions around the Mediterranean to Poitiers in France in the west, and into the borders of present-day Turkey.
Thus it came about that the earth thereafter bore on its bosom two extraordinarily populous (and inter-ethnic) religions whose mission was worldwide. The beginnings of their interaction were stained in blood, and hundreds of years of warfare stained them further. Then in a spasm of great battles — at Malta in 1565, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna in 1681 (on September 11) — a military standoff was reached.
Let us leave to one side the long, intervening history, except to say that the West became woefully ignorant of Islamic cultures, tensions, sufferings. And into the Arabic language are translated fewer books of other languages than into almost any other language on earth. For 500 years, Islam largely turned inward. Cultural separation between the West, Christian and secular, and the nations of Arabia (and Asian Muslim nations) ensued.
Then with a thunderclap of shock and horror, four American planes were cleverly turned into immensely destructive bombs, made up of their own aviation fuel. One by one, they were seized, guided, and cruelly exploded bright orange into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, and the Pentagon, with one still winging toward some other unknown target in Washington, D.C. (On that fourth plane, the Americans began to fight back, and forced it spinning down into the merciless ground, in humble Shanksville, Pa., not far from the most sacred of all American battlefields, Gettysburg, where Lincoln delivered the greatest of all political addresses since Pericles.)
Thus it happened that suddenly on September 11 of 2001, on a day that already lives in infamy, curtains closed, as it were, on the struggle against atheist totalitarianism. And a far more ancient struggle — but this time on quite different terms — opened up.