Religion, Death and 9/11

“Morgan Freeman died,” my co-teacher whispered to me in a hushed tone befitting the situation. A famous, beloved actor, who has brought many of us cinephiles great joy, had passed away. I remember thinking that it was quite a loss. He was in many of my favorite movies, more than is needed to list, for any reader will certainly be familiar with his considerably diverse and first-rate oeuvre. However, it proved not to be true. Evidently, this has been a popular hoax over the last few years, with other actors involved in the lame charade.

It reminds me of the childhood rumor that we tried to spread in 5th grade during the peak of pre-teen rap popularity that Kriss Kross had been hit, and in fact killed, by a “Mack” Truck, how ironic right? It was a pathetic attempt of seeing how viral we could make a rumor before viral rumors were even possible. It didn’t catch on very well. After all, the Internet was still extremely rare, slow and powered by telephone lines in 1992.

The point is that death gets our attention. Births of famous celebrities get our attention too, but not in the same fashion. The possibilities and unknowns present in death fascinate us. In birth, we know what will become of the children; they will be involved in the same crap that we all are: eating, sleeping, excreting, working and finding fleeting pleasure anyway we can.

September 11, 2012, the eleventh holiday of a terrible day in American history is a day focused on death, but also life. We remember the deaths of thousands of Americans from all kinds of backgrounds; we celebrate the lives of those still living in honor of the deceased’s memory. We all remember where we were. Many lives changed that day. The conceptual “American way of life” changed forever that day, as we felt the surge beginning toward a never-ending war on terror. The thing that changed for me on that day was the way I viewed religion. I saw how easy it was to morph a sacred text into a personal vendetta against another people.

Those foreigners were religious zealots believing they were doing God’s work and were to be rewarded for their murderous rampage. To any reasonable person, that sounds like a perfect definition of madness and irrationality. What kind of loving God desires death meted out by vengeful humans? What kind of God creates fragile, fallible people, and gives them a rule not to kill—unless those you kill pray to a God with a different name? Those 19 assassins were sent on the mission by a fatuous scion of a Saudi billionaire who interpreted a Muslim sacred text as invoking a Holy War against infidels (namely those who didn’t pray to the one called Allah.)

We are all familiar with the backstory. America supplied Osama Bin Laden and his cronies weapons and support when they were fighting the “good fight” against those Godless commie Russkies in the 80’s, we abandoned the Afghanis after the war ended in 1989 (perhaps because Afghanistan holds no desirable exportable product), a power vacuum ensued, the uber-religious Taliban took over in 1995, allowed Osama a realm to train and indoctrinate his henchmen finally culminating in the 2001 attacks. American secret intelligence killed Bin Laden in 2011 and people celebrated. I remember some people, including a Pittsburgh Steeler WR, questioned why we were happy. Some asked why we celebrated a death of any person. Why did we cheer for the extermination of life? Did it make us as bad as those flag burners and hate-filled people who cheered on 9/11? The answer is No. There is no reason to believe any murder will return the 3,000 souls lost 11 years ago. There is also no reason to hide elation at justice served upon a despicable man who preached intolerance and viewed homicide as virtuous. It is also worth noting that 150,000 people died today (from natural and unnatural causes alike.) The world is in flux; static it is not. We don’t need parades to document Bin Laden’s death. We understand it was revenge, and sometimes that comes in the form of “an eye for an eye.”

Now, we must also look at this from the other side of the coin. In some circles, American deaths may have be seen as revenge for a death of a loved one in a far part of the world such as Iraq, Iran, or parts of Africa caused by the military intervention machine of the USA. As much as we felt vindication for Bin Laden’s death, a confused, ill-informed populace might feel the same when watching innocent Americans die. The comparison is voided as soon as you realize that Osama was involved in terrorism, and the victims of 9/11 were not.

Death is the great equalizer. It comes to us all. We are all physically capable (with the modern inventions of guns, bombs, and knives) of killing another person. John-Paul Sartre explained existentialism by giving the example of standing on a subway platform. We have the choice of pushing the person in front of us into the oncoming train, leaping into it ourselves, or of doing nothing. The fact that we are faced with not only possible death, but also murder at almost any juncture of our lives is one cause of the anxiety and terrifying angst modern man can feel. People say to live for the moment and live in the present. Past causes us pain, future causes nervousness, but the present allows us to live through and in each breath. One problem with religion is that it promises us not only the mixture of past, present and future wholly combined into that fantasy of forever living in happiness that we can forget about living, accepting and generating happiness for ourselves and those around us in this life. Religion can be a helpful thing for some people. It was invented to quell the intense pain felt of losing loved ones through death long ago and give a sensible ethical code to live by. It gives the hope of afterlife if one lives a righteous and moral life. The problem ensues when someone translates righteousness and morality as killing in the name of God.

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