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A Teachable Moment in Debate Over American Values

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Sept. 16, 2002


Sept. 11: "A Teachable Moment" in Debate Over American Values

Interview with the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine conducted by Scott Harris

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Americans gathered together in small towns and large cities across the nation on Sept. 11 to remember and mourn the enormous loss of life and destruction wrought by last year's terrorist assaults on New York City and Washington, D.C. But while religious leaders led prayer services and politicians honored the hundreds of fire fighters and police officers who sacrificed their lives to save others, the Bush administration was working hard to shape public opinion in support of a new war against Iraq.

On this first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, people from all walks of life are contemplating the consequences of President Bush's declaration of a "war without end." Many Americans flew flags displaying their patriotism, while others were drawn to hundreds of peace vigils, concerts and educational forums which focused more on reconciliation than retribution. One of the largest of these gatherings was held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park where more than 20,000 people turned out for the "9-11 Power to the Peaceful Festival."

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Between the Lines' Scott Harris spoke with the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, who reflects on events of the past year since Sept. 11 and the ongoing debate on American values during this time of crisis.

Rev. Jim Wallis: I think Sept. 11 is a teachable moment. I think it could be a doorway to transformation or it could just be an excuse for entrenching us in some of our worst instincts and habits. In many ways, our illusions of invulnerability were shattered on Sept. 11. We joined the world and sadly for most people in the world who live in places like Sarajevo or Jerusalem or El Salvador or Cape Town, South Africa, this kind of unexpected and random, horrible violence that would take loved ones away -- that's not a new experience for many of the world's people. But for us in the U.S., it was.

I live in a terrorist target. I live 20 blocks from the White House. So that would be pretty high on the list of further attacks from al-Qaeda cells or whoever is out there. Every time I leave Washington, I'm aware of my 4-year-old son who I just put to bed and my wife Joy, who if they're not traveling with me, are left behind for a night or two when I'm out speaking somewhere -- and I'm very aware of that. But I don't want to respond to that very real threat in the same way that threatens other people's 4-year-olds.

Between The Lines: There was enormous goodwill around the world, empathy and solidarity for the American people after the incredible loss of life from the Sept. 11 attacks. Many folk's assessment is that solidarity has disappeared, has dried up in the past year. I wanted to get your take on that. Do you think the world views the U.S. the same way it did one year ago?

Rev. Jim Wallis: Well, I just came back from Britain. My wife is English and we were over in London. I think there was tremendous sympathy and real feeling of the pain of the American people during that period, but because of some of what we've done since, particular now, because of this threatened war with Iraq -- which I found very little support for in Britain, actually, even though Tony Blair is supporting George Bush. In England, there is very little support for a war against Iraq. Many of the Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament -- the churches are all against it. The new archbishop of Canterbury is totally opposed; I spent some time with him. He said it well. His name is Rowland Williams. You're going to hear from him. He's 53 years old, the new archbishop of Canterbury. He said it well, he said when all you have are hammers, everything looks like a nail, and America has the biggest and best hammers. That's all we seem to have and know how to use, and we have this illusion by pounding one more

Between The Lines: U.S. foreign policy over the past year has been driven by the idea that we have to prevent future terrorist attacks, hence the war on Afghanistan. What in your view have been the successes and failures of U.S. foreign policies post-Sept. 11?

Rev. Jim Wallis: Well, I often -- when I'm not speaking on this topic -- ask a question of the audience. I say, "If the U.S. and its allies were able to incarcerate or kill every terrorist by the end of the day, today, how many of you think terrorism will end?" You know, no one has ever raised their hand. I think there are cells of trained, ready, committed terrorists in the world -- people who are ready to commit more violence against innocent people. I think that is the threat that somehow we've got to deal with: more the root causes, not the terrorists themselves. Poverty is not the only cause of terrorism, to be sure. But poverty and hopelessness are the best recruiters for terrorism unless we can begin to move toward a kind of multinational effort that really will, what I often call, "drain the swamps of injustice in which the mosquitoes of terrorism breed." We have to really combat that hopelessness and poverty that is the best friend for those who want to commit terrorist violence.

Contact Sojourners by calling (202) 328-8842 or visit their Web site at


Scott Harris is the executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending Sept. 20, 2002


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