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America's "Solid Core": A Minister Reflects on the Impacts and Lessons Learned from 9/11

Aerial view of the plaza in spring.
Jin S. Lee/9/11 Memorial, Photo by Jin S. Lee,
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9/11 Memorial
Aerial view of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on Monday, May 21, 2018.

All this week on NPR, we've been remembering the events of September 11, 2001 and exploring the lasting impacts that terrorist attack had on the U.S. and around the world.

It seemed especially important to take a moment to pause and reflect on this somber anniversary, and about the wars that ensued, after the chaotic American exit from Afghanistan a few weeks ago.

CAI's Kathryn Eident asked retired Presbyterian minister Rod MacDonald, of Brewster, what he's been thinking about on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Eident Rod, you're someone who has worked with, and counseled, others as they grapple with issues of faith along with life events. What are your reflections as we approach September 11th?

MacDonald 9/11 was a deep national trauma. Of course, we'd never experienced an attack like this on American soil. And, I've been reflecting about how, along with the incredible grief and loss that came with 9/11, is the reality that many of us were made to feel vulnerable in a way that we probably never had before, collectively and individually.

To be human is to be vulnerable to those things that we can't control. But, when we're made to feel vulnerable, that can inspire various kinds of reactions in us. And, one of those is to lash out, to strike back out of suspicion and fear. And after 9/11, we saw a good bit of that hostility aimed at our Muslim American neighbors and all Muslims, and sometimes by extension by any persons that we see as others.

But, there's another reaction, too, when we feel vulnerable and that's become more aware of and sensitive to others' suffering and needs. And I think that led many of us, including on Cape Cod, to come together to reach out in concern and neighborly actions toward others, including refugees and immigrants to this country. And, I really believe that this kind of caring and empathy is the solid core in Americans, that the majority of us feel that open and welcoming toward others rather than reacting with hate.

Eident Speaking of reacting with empathy versus fear and hate, you're part of a group that directly grew out of the events of 9/11, and that's the Nauset Interfaith Association. Can you talk a little, briefly, about this group and its work?

MacDonald Sure. Nauset Interfaith Association did grow out of 9/11 as folks wanted to work together toward interfaith cooperation and to support those who they saw as most in need. Right now, it's a group of about 20 member congregations from the lower and outer Cape and includes Jewish, Christian and Muslim representation.

The work of the NIA has evolved to include a Martin Luther King Action Team whose work has been really, really important during this past year and more after the death of George Floyd.

My experience has mainly been with the Refugee Support Team, which began in 2016 and has partnered with Ascentria Care Alliance in Worcester, which is a resettlement agency. We learned out here that we can't resettle refugees on Cape Cod because they must be housed within a certain radius of the agency.

But, we have had some great experiences when we hosted families largely from Africa and Middle Eastern countries for Cape Cod weekends. There were wonderful experiences on both parts, very rich times, and some of those relationships are continuing.

Also, we are involved in conversations with other groups around the Cape who are concerned about Afghan evacuees and how resettlement agencies in New England need to be rebuilt because so much was dismantled during the Trump Administration with its refugee policies.

Eident You know, it sounds like a lot of the work that the Nauset Interfaith Group or NIA, as you call it, has roots that look at racism in some way. And of course, racism has been the topic of discussion so much over the last year. But there was also strong anti-Muslim sentiment and racism soon after 9/11. In your opinion, has this racist attitude gotten better or worse?

MacDonald Well, in many ways, there could be a direct line connecting the 9/11 attacks and some of the racism and xenophobia that we see in the U.S. today, including that is targeted against Asians and Asian Americans during the pandemic.

It's an attitude that, unfortunately, has always existed in America toward those that some see as others. But I think that flame has been fanned by political actors. I have been able to be part of the Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities, which began in 2016 and 2017 to introduce resolutions to town meetings across the Cape to provide some basic protections for undocumented immigrants. Some of the arguments that we heard from our opponents were characterizing all such immigrants as criminals and saying that they would overrun the communities, hearing other kinds of fear mongering. But so far, 10 out of 15 towns on the Cape have passed Safe Communities resolutions. I think, again, showing that the solid core of openness and welcome truly exists in Americans.

Eident Rod, some of the 13 American service members who died in the attack at the Kabul airport last month were in their 20s. Some of them had no memory of the 9/11 attack. What can you tell somebody that age about what we could learn from 9/11 and the two ensuing wars? What should the next generation understand from all of this?

MacDonald America needs to learn how to be a good neighbor to the world in the 21st century. I think that's one of the lessons from 9/11 and certainly comes out of disastrous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan for all these many years. They were the wrong responses to 9/11 and they were terribly costly in terms of lives and resources. America needs to learn to practice a certain kind of humility, I think humility that's borne not out of weakness, but out of our strength. And, our strength is our democracy. And right now, that democracy needs to be protected. That democracy is our best bulwark against any future 9/11.

Eident Rod, thank you so much for thinking about these topics and sharing your reflections with us.

MacDonald You're welcome. Good to be with you.