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Wilfrid Laurier University Laurier Brantford
October 25, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Forgiveness and 9/11 - a lost opportunity

David Haskell
The Hamilton Spectator
1,051 words
12 September 2005
The Hamilton Spectator
Copyright (c) 2005 The Hamilton Spectator.


Yesterday, we remembered the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

While the passing of four years has proven a soothing tonic against the shock and sadness of the tragedy, one sensation remains as strong as ever: the sense that the world has changed for the worst. Our world is a more fearful and hateful place.

On the evening of that fateful day, when President Bush spoke to his nation and promised those responsible for the horrific destruction would be pursued with "unyielding anger" his goal was to reassure the American people.

He wanted them to be comforted know that justice would be done, that retribution would be swift and severe.

But what if a different choice had been made that evening?

What if instead of launching the first salvo in his so-called war on terror, Bush let his Christian faith (of which he so often speaks) guide his actions? What if his first message to those responsible for the evil acts was not "we will find you" but instead "we forgive you"?

Critics will argue that such a declaration would have led to riots in the streets. Fired by a combustible mix of revenge and fear, Americans from coast to coast would have screamed for Bush to be removed as head of state and the more extreme would have advocated for the removal of Bush's head itself.

And even if reaction from those at home could have been contained and quelled, critics will argue that reaction from hostile forces abroad would have posed a more serious threat.

Enemy nations and rogue states around the world would have viewed his offer of forgiveness as a sign of weakness on the part of the United States. It would have been assumed that acts of terrorism could be committed with impunity and attacks would have become more numerous and heinous.

That's what critics will argue.

I believe that had Bush, leader and spokesperson for the most powerful country in the world, offered forgiveness to those who planned and carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, it would have led to the most significant shift toward world peace since the dawn of the Common Era.

Instead of riots in the streets of America, I believe there would have been a revelation in the hearts of Americans.

Psychologists, communication and cultural theorists have long been aware of a phenomenon humans experience known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental and emotional discomfort people feel when they are confronted with a discrepancy between what they say they believe and the actions they are performing.

The discomfort is alleviated in one of two ways. The person either changes his beliefs to better fit with his actions or changes his actions to better fit with his beliefs. Most people have a strong need for consistency between beliefs and actions and cannot stay in cognitive dissonance for long.

About 85 per cent of Americans call themselves Christians and nine out of 10 say their faith is very important or fairly important in their lives.

While many of these professed Christians don't have a deep understanding of their faith, the doctrine that Christians must forgive those who do harm to them is something even new converts know. It is one of Jesus's central teachings.

In the gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus makes it clear that one's own salvation is contingent on one's ability to forgive others saying, "For if you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions."

According to the principles of cognitive dissonance, had Christians in America heard their president offer forgiveness to the terrorists, they would have been compelled to support and join in his action or abandon the essence of their spiritual beliefs.

Given that 90 per cent of Americans say their faith anchors their life, it seems highly unlikely they would have cut the rope that holds them secure. Instead, I believe Americans would have begun to take their faith much more seriously.

They would have moved from being "hearers of the word" to "doers of the word."

In particular and most importantly, Jesus's controversial message of love even for one's enemies would finally have been accepted at face value.

There is no telling what miracles would have followed that revelation.

To argue that an offer of forgiveness from Bush would have been perceived as weakness and led to more attacks overlooks some key facts.

Terrorists are not like serial killers and other mass murderers who commit their crimes for the emotional rush.

Most terrorists are not without a strong ethical code. They know and respect the value of human life at least as it applies to their family, friends and members of their own communities.

The reason they can perform the deeds they do is that they have convinced themselves that those they kill are less than human.

Had words of forgiveness been on the lips of Bush, he would have proven the terrorists wrong.

He would have invalidated their rationale for murder.

It's said that one is most human when one is most humane. Next to selfless compassion, forgiveness is the greatest example of humanity.

Around the world, enemies of the United States would have been incapacitated by their own case of cognitive dissonance as they were forced to admit that Americans are human after all. As their beliefs about Americans changed so, too, would their actions have changed.

While I don't think one offer of forgiveness four years ago would have solved America's security problem once and for all, had such a declaration been made I am convinced the world would have been greatly changed for the better. Forgiveness is to hate as water is to fire.

The United States' claim to world military superiority has not been enough to keep it safe.

Sadly, we will never know if a genuine claim to moral superiority would have proven more effective.

David Haskell is assistant professor of journalism at the Brantford Campus of Wilfrid Laurier University. His research interest is religion and media.