Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Remembering the Anniversary of Tragic Events

We are between the anniversaries of two tragic events in our nation: Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2005) and the 9/11 terrorist attack (September 11, 2001). I must confess that I have ambivalent feelings about the intense and protracted media programming on the anniversary of national tragedies. I feel intellectually over-informed and emotionally exhausted. Yet surely there must be a way to reach a helpful and healthy balance in remembering the terrible things that have happened to us nationally and personally.

Certainly we must have respect and compassion for the people who continue to suffer from past tragedies, and remain ready to help if possible. There are people who continue to suffer emotionally and economically from Katrina, Ivan, 9/11 and other tragic events. We should not, however, linger too long over a tragedy. If we can reverently remember without becoming preoccupied, and selectively forget without losing the lessons we learned from the event, then we can more likely find that elusive balance that allows us to properly distribute our attention between what has happened, what is happening now, and what may happen in the future. Jesus reminded us: "Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:34b)

Having expressed my ambivalence about reliving past painful events to the extent that we lose proper focus on the present and the future, let us remember Katrina and 9/11. Our remembering should not be license to wallow uncreatively in past pain. Let us not keep reliving the past in hope that by some strange alchemy we can change it. Our remembering should be an occasion for learning from the past so that we may be better prepared for similar future events.

We are powerless to control the course of hurricanes. We can only follow their course with hearts in our throats, prepare, respond with good sense, and hasten to the aid of those who are victims. It is amazing that some people refuse to follow official evacuation orders. It is unbelievable that there are people who forget that their lives are more important than their property, both of which can be lost in the false belief that their presence will save their property from a hurricane.

There is a legend about a man from northern Alabama who moved to Mobile and lived in a house near the water. When Hurricane Frederic was bearing down on Mobile in 1979 this man was advised to evacuate. He protested that he had faced tornados in northern Alabama and survived, and that he could surely survive a hurricane. Well, Frederic swept over his house and he almost lost his life. Afterward he said that next time he was told to "evaporate" he was going to "evaporate"! Good lesson.

September 11, 2001, shattered our false sense of national security. We were aware of certain forces of evil and extremism in the world. We felt, however, that an ocean on each side and relatively friendly neighbor-nations on our northern and southern borders constituted all the protection we needed from terrorism. We now realize there is no remote or totally secure place on earth. A truism from Uncle Remus comes to mind: "You can't run from trouble. There ain't no place that far."

After 9 years there is still palpable fear in the eyes of people when 9/11 is recalled. Each new act of terrorism anywhere in the world notches up that feeling. Some of our fear is appropriate to the situation at hand. Healthy fear moves us to be appropriately cautious. Our lives have been changed. If you doubt that, go through an airport. However, we should beware of letting fear run rampant in our lives to the extent that we become suspicious of everyone and everything. There are people who have a high level of floating paranoia looking for a place to land. Beware of paranoid people who use every national and international crisis as a vehicle for spreading malignant fear. There are people whose lives are so marinated in fear that they harbor a kind of universal suspicion, and there are those who intentionally manipulate fear in others for their own personal gains --political, economic, and otherwise. There is nothing that would please the terrorists more than seeing our individual citizens and our nation as a whole become paralyzed with fear. There is no greater threat to our country than that of universal and internalized fear. Terrorists know this and effectively use fear to paralyze and control. Let us not allow fear to set the tone of our public and private lives.

In Victor Hugo's story, "Ninety-Three", a ship is caught in a terrific storm. At the height of the storm the crew members hear a terrible crashing sound below. They know what it is. A cannon they are carrying has broken loose and is crashing into the sides of the ship with every pitch and roll of the ship in the heavy seas. Two brave men risk their lives to go below to lash it down again. They know that the heavy cannon loose inside the ship is more dangerous than the storm outside the ship.

The potential danger of unbridled fear within is far greater than the random acts of terrorism. Let us remember two words from an old friend of ours who lived 2,000 years ago. He constantly said to friends and followers: "Fear not." Fear cannot long abide where faith abounds.