I was awestruck after visiting Ground Zero in New York City shortly after the attacks of September 11. No pictures could capture the enormity of destruction. How have the events changed the US? Will they continue to change us? The US was attacked massively and viciously. What are the choices that face us from a spiritual point of view?
Poverty fell off the agenda. Foodbanks, soup kitchens, and other social service providers face diminishing donations. Poverty legislation is stalled in the US Senate. Military spending now leaves little over for anything else. We have lost crucial civil liberties, and desires for energy independence now justify oil drilling in sensitive environments.
Military solutions to terrorism could dominate foreign policy for years, threatening wider wars, recruiting more terrorists, and fuelling violence. No attention is being paid to how to defeat terrorism and resolve conflicts in less violent ways. Instead of looking to ourselves or to foreign policy to see how we have contributed to the injustices that breed terrorism, the struggle is being defined as a battle between good and evil.
If we did not recognise the face of evil on September 11, we will never recognise it. But to describe our nation, the US, as only "good", as President Bush continues to do, is to miss a critical moment for self-reflection. Instead of facing the many roots of this evil, we face the moral danger of turning away from responsibilities.
There have been signs of change and even possibilities for national transformation. Empty parking spaces outside our churches, synagogues, and mosques have dwindled. Some have felt the need for spiritual comfort, while others have sought religious affirmation for American patriotism. But faith communities have also helped with moral and political guidance, and even offer prophetic words on what kind of people we ought now to be.
On September 11, Americans joined the world. Our sense of invulnerability was shattered. Instead of just bombing every country where terrorists live and telling the world "you're either with us or against us," we must reach out to a world that too few Americans have really understood.
There are positive signs. High school students are studying Arabic. Community meetings and dialogues with imams to discuss Islam are drawing large audiences. Many are asking questions about what really is important, making significant commitments in relationships, and even changing their life directions and work, prompted by soul-searching from that day.
September 11, and our reflections upon it, could become a teaching moment, a time to evaluate what our government does in our name. Now is the time to demand a Middle East peace settlement that is just for Palestinians and Israelis, addressing the most grievous source of Arab and Muslim anger. Now is the time to change sanctions policy in Iraq, which kills children but doesn't hurt Saddam Hussein, and to focus pressure to remove weapons of mass destruction rather than succumb to war. Now is the time to support democracy in the Arab world, where official stupidity, greed and oppression have helped lead us to this place.
Now is the time to undertake not just hunger relief, but reconstruction in the world's poorest nations - which will win more hearts and minds than bombing campaigns. The loss of so many lives and the heroism and sacrifice offered there makes Ground Zero a sacred place. Will we respond to terrorism in ways that reflect the heroism of the life-savers or pursue policies that risk and kill more innocents? That's not just a political question, but a spiritual one.
Jim Wallis is editor of the US magazine Sojourners,
and convener of Call to Renewal, a federation of churches and faith-based organisations
working against poverty.