I had two appointments scheduled for Sept. 11. First was to be a meeting of the Working Group on Human Needs, the group set up by Sen. Rick Santorum and former Sen. Harris Wofford to try to come up with some consensus about the "faith-based initiative" and alternative ways to meet social problems. The second was a dinner speech in Niagara Falls, N.Y. I didn't make it to either event.
I was in a taxi headed into Washington when the news bulletins of the horrific terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came over the radio. Minutes later, we rounded a curve and saw massive black columns of smoke pouring out of the Pentagon. I asked the driver to get me as far into the city as he could. It turned out to be not very far.
My cell phone was dead, so from a pay phone I quickly called Americans United to make sure everyone on staff was accounted for. I closed the office and told everyone to go home when it was safe.
The street was alive with rumors -- another plane was going to hit the White House, a bomb had exploded at the Capitol, terrorists planned to unleash biological warfare. During one particularly frightening moment, a low-flying military aircraft zoomed overhead. As the engine noise grew and tall buildings blocked the view, many people apparently assumed this plane was also going to crash. What to do -- go into the foyer of a building or head into the middle of the street? Within seconds, I realized there was no rational answer and that there was very little to do but wait and see what happened. All Americans have been waiting to see what comes next from that day on.
Like most Americans, I felt simply miserable. I wanted to do something, but was unsure of what. I tried to give blood, but was told the response had been so overwhelming that I wasn't needed.
We saw great heroism that day and the ones that followed. But we also saw some Americans at their worst. In Ohio, a vandal threw a rock through the window of a mosque where the parents of an AU staff member worship. In Arizona, a Sikh was shot to death outside his gas station in an incident which law enforcement officials attribute solely to the killer's ignorant belief that the man was a Muslim.
Much to his credit, President George W. Bush quickly denounced such mindless acts and reminded Americans that all of Islam should not be held responsible for the actions of a few extremists. He even apologized for his use of the word "crusade" in describing possible U.S. military response.
But not every public response was as reasoned. I was most discouraged by disturbing diatribes from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, two television preachers whose activities are frequently discussed in the pages of this magazine. Speaking on his "700 Club" two days after the attack, Robertson asserted that the Supreme Court, through its doctrine on church-state separation, "has essentially stuck its finger in God's eye and said we're going to legislate you out of the schools...We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And then we say, 'Why does this happen?'"
On the same show a few minutes later, Jerry Falwell followed up these comments with the equally monstrous assertion that the high court, civil liberties groups, gay people, feminists, supporters of legal abortion and Pagans have so enraged God that God has "lifted the curtain" of protection and allowed the terrorists to "give us probably what we deserve." He continued his tirade by saying, "I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"
When I learned about these remarks I was nearly speechless. I've heard these two say some outrageous things over the years, but this was a new low. The nation was hurting, and instead of helping with the healing, they kicked us while we were down. It is abominable to this Christian to have some other preachers pontificate that because more Americans didn't buy their brand of moralizing, men, women and children probably deserved to die horrible deaths.
Falwell and Robertson at first tried to defend their statements, writing lengthy articles on their websites. Then they issued multiple "clarifications" and pseudo-apologies that do not even begin to explain, much less reject, their "blame America" attitude or their obvious contempt for all those who think or act out of convictions other than those of a fundamentalist religious/political fringe.
The damage these two have wrought has been done -- and it is serious. I would like to see television producers and religion writers discount both men. I support their free-speech rights. They can hold rallies and rant on their own programs. However, in light of these remarks, it's time for the media to realize that Falwell and Robertson have nothing of value to say to America and cease giving their hate a forum.
No one knows what the next few months will bring, but we at Americans United will be here, making sure that in time of crisis and remembrance, we never forgo our national commitments to the principles of justice, equality and freedom of conscience that have set us apart from forces and powers in other parts of the world.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.