Parker Lecture, 2001 — A Recollection
A guest post from former UCC OC Inc. Executive Director, Rev. Robert Chase
On September 25, 2001 — just two weeks after the horror of 9/11 — OC, Inc. hosted the annual Everett C. Parker Lecture, with National Public Radio’s Scott Simon delivering the keynote. It is instructive to remember that time, to recall what we heard then and to view those event and remarks through the lens of our recent history.
New York police officers climb to the top of the wreckage of the World Trade Center South Tower to display the American flag. © Newhouse News Service /Andrew Mills photo. Originally featured on the UCC web site in September 2001.
The U.S. was on a war footing; with the call for declaring war was on everyone’s mind. On Sept. 20, five days before Simon delivered his remarks, President George Bush, addressing a joint session of Congress, referred to the 9/11 attacks as a “war,” and said, in part, “Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.” Little did we know how prophetic his remarks would prove to be.
As Executive Director of OC, Inc., it was the first time I co-chaired the event (along with media justice advocate Sam Simon — the first of many collaborations that continue to this day). As such, I was especially tuned in to “reading the room.” The event was held at National City Christian Church in Washington, DC — a symbolic statement about the important role that faith affirming individuals and institutions should play in media justice. The city was tense. Air travel, which had been grounded by 9/11 had only recently resumed. Tourists were hesitant to come to DC. We debated whether or not we should hold the Parker Lecture at all. Several later told me that it was the first time they had ventured out in public since the attacks.
We were actually treated as heroes for having the courage to fly. At Cleveland airport, airline employees formed a cordon with cheers and balloons as we walked from the parking lot to security gates. We decided, somewhat in defiance of the national mood, to go forward with the Parker Lecture, as an expression of progressive optimism and inclusivity. I remember the hush in the room as a prayer was offered by Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University and the first full-time Muslim chaplain in the US. His presence was indicative that the United Church of Christ was not about to bow to Islamophobia, but would continue to be a beacon for inclusiveness in building bridges between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.
The expectation at the Parker Lecture was that some balance to this national mood would be supplied by liberal icon Scott Simon — NPR personality then and still — with Quaker roots and a decided tilt towards pacifism. What would he say? In my capacity as host, I greeted the lecturer who, even then, was a seasoned presenter. I was surprised to see that he was nervous — really nervous. After welcoming him and telling him how pleased we were that he could be with us at such a momentous time, he said — somewhat ominously — that he hoped I’d still be able to say that after he spoke.
Indeed, he began his remarks in this way: “I suspect that what I have to say today about war and peace will not please a good many of you. I don’t want you to feel compelled to offer courteous applause for remarks with which you may vigorously disagree. I am grateful for the chance just to be heard in this forum; that is as much courtesy as I can expect. So let me suggest that my remarks be received simply with silence.”
And while he went on to condemn evangelical Christian “mullahs” like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who declared the terrorist attacks as an act of God’s retribution for America’s liberalism and to praise Mark Bingham, a gay rugby player who helped lead the insurrection against the hijackers on United flight 93 that crashed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, his remarks also included these words:
“It seems to me that in confronting the forces that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States has no sane alternative but to wage war; and wage it with unflinching resolution. Notice I don’t say reprisal or revenge. What I mean is self-defense — protecting the United States from further attack by destroying those who would launch them.”
This is not meant to condemn Mr. Simon for his remarks, but rather to address the context of that moment. It is easy now to see the mistakes of our ways then. There were very few voices on the national stage who were not advocating a swift and strong military response to the 9/11 attacks. It is remarkable, as I review these real-time sources, how quickly our nation again and again descends into militaristic responses to new unique circumstances in our unfolding history.
It is an ironic coincidence that on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the “endless war” in Afghanistan spawned by a rush to respond militarily to those events, should only now see a withdrawal of all American armed forces. Michelle Goldberg writes in the NY Times, “[The withdrawal from Afghanistan], besides being a tragedy for Afghans allied with us, revealed America’s longest war as worse than futile. We didn’t just lose to the Taliban. We left them stronger than we found them.
“The sheer waste of it all is staggering. Twenty years ago, American politicians and intellectuals, traumatized by an unprecedented act of mass murder and not-so-secretly eager to see history revved up again, misunderstood what 9/11 represented. We inflated the stature of our enemies to match our need for retribution. We launched hubristic wars to remake the world and let ourselves be remade instead, spending an estimated $8 trillion in the process. We midwifed worse terrorists than those we set out to fight.”
In President George Bush’s address to Congress and in Scott Simon’s remarks at the Parker Lecture, few could have predicted the devastating cost — in lives, in dollars, in global prestige — that has transpired since then, prompted by our hubristic approach to global affairs and our ill-informed understanding of those we so often consider as “other.”
Rev. Robert Chase was the Executive Director of UCC OC Inc. from April 1999 to August 2007. He is an author, consultant and facilitator and blogs at robertjchase.com.