Thought for the Day: September 11, 2002


The Most Rev. Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury-designate



Anglican Communion

World Trade Center


Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury-designate

I find it really difficult to look at the photos of the Twin Towers dissolving in flame and rubble. I know Iím not alone in that, but for me, they bring back the memory of being, for a while, on the inside of the picture that day in New York, when I, with others, was trapped for a period in a neighbouring building. The image from outside is the single dramatic moment, the crash out of a clear sky; but what we are going to remember from inside is the chaos, dark, and dust; and the unexpected intimate conversations and touches of the hand between strangers as we waited. And photographs canít begin, somehow, to do justice to what we canít see, the thousands of lives ending dreadfully, the fear and agony, the prolonged anguish of those who lost friends, children, parents. Our minds canít really cope with all that. And if they can't, just gazing at the pictures feels detached and wrong.

Perhaps it's got something to do with how easily we do in fact concentrate on dramatic pictures to spare us from the personal reality. The terrorist, the suicide bomber, is someone who's got to the point where they can only see from a distance: the sort of distance from which you can't see a face, meet the eyes of someone, hear who they are, imagine who and what they love.

All violence works with that sort of distance; it depends on not seeing certain things. No one would ever have been able to carry on as a soldier in earlier days without the training not to see or think about an enemy in personal terms. Sometimes what made soldiers break down in an environment like the trenches of the First World War was some moment when they became aware of the humanity of a particular enemy. And one of the disturbing things about religious faith is that it tells us that God never sees at a distance, never sees things only in general. There are no lives that are superfluous, no lives you can forget about.

War may well be getting nearer; those who urge caution inevitably get accused of a sort of loss of moral nerve, a willingness to collude with evil. But if the great religious traditions, Eastern and Western, insist on surrounding war with so many questions and conditions, they do so because they know not only that the choice to go to war is at best the lesser evil, but also that there are ways of fighting that increasingly damage our own humanity, changing what we expect of ourselves and others. With the high-tech military methods we've gotten used to in recent years, there's a greater temptation to take for granted the view from a distance. And this means that we should see the military option as something to be considered a lot further down the road than it would have been even 50 years ago. If we don't see the point of this caution, which isnít at all a matter of squeamishness or cowardice, the nearer the terrorist comes to winning, because it means weíre getting used to the view from outside as the normal perspective - the distant view that spares us the real cost to our own humanity.

Copyright © 2002, BBC.