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9/11, Libya and Memory

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If only more terror suspects were more like Jacques Chirac. You know: French. And immensely wealthy. Perhaps, then, they would be cut the kind of slack that the former French President was cut at his trial for misuse of public funds last week. M Chirac was allowed to miss his corruption trial because of claims he suffers from a rare brain condition that gives him periodic memory lapses. A condition that some anti-corruption campaigners in France have called very convenient indeed. It's a convenience many terror-suspects would no doubt have wished for in Libya.

Memory was a central theme of much news last week as the world stopped to remember the deaths of thousands on September 11, 2001 in New York. Those of us who deplore the way both America and Britain have reacted to that horrifying attack might be tempted towards cynicism, but that would be wrong. Civilian victims of any kind of war, waged for whatever reason, are always a tragedy. To remember their needless and involuntary sacrifice is good and we should respect and honour that. And when we see memorials to the Twin Towers' dead in our churches and see those victims commemorated on television, we should also have the courage to ask, in good time, whether other, perhaps larger losses of life will also be commemorated.

Will we, for instance, in 2020, be holding memorial services for those who died in the Haiti earthquake? If not, it may be worth asking why. Is it that the death of 3,000 human beings at the hands of evil men is more terrible than hundreds of thousands in a natural disaster? And if that is the case, will we also pick a day, in a few years' time, to commemorate the civilian dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of our response to 9/11? It is a hopeless Christian dream, I am sure, to pay tribute to the sacrifice and families of soldiers on both sides of the conflict on our various remembrance days, but surely we bear the women, children and passers-by no ill will? So will we pray for them, for their families and for an end to the suffering that continues without front-page headlines? Or do we only have space in our hearts for one tragedy at a time? Do we feel that commemorating one might diminish the commemoration of another? Because if that is the case, what exactly are we commemorating? The innocent dead, or a justification for revenge?

Praise the Lord, the tone of most commemorations was one of reconciliation and a desire for peace. President Obama quoted from Scripture: 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,' which was a beautiful choice. Perhaps an even better one would have involved forgiving enemies and blessing, rather than cursing them. But public displays of religion, particularly in times of war, rarely present Jesus' actual teachings on conflict and violence. Perhaps that's understandable. Perhaps those grieving need comfort, not hard teachings. But, when will it no longer be 'too soon' to talk about genuine forgiveness and a reconciliation that doesn't come at the barrel of a gun or after all who call themselves your enemy are dead?

Last week, between the news of President Chirac's failing and America's all-too-raw memories, came revelations many in Britain would probably rather forget. Documents seized in a Gaddafi compound in Libya suggest UK complicity in illegal rendition and torture of terror suspects, working alongside a regime we have been taught to despise, assisting it in doing the most despicable things. As our Prime Minister says, we should not jump to any conclusions. But neither should we accept as mitigation or excuse, his telling reminders that 2003 was just 'two years after 9/11,' and that we should 'remember the circumstances at the time.'

Yes, people were afraid after 9/11. Fear makes people do terrible things, but it does not make those things okay. Christ was tortured to death because church and state authorities feared the unrest he might provoke. 1930s Germans feared Jewish conspiracy. White South Africans feared being overrun.

If torture is wrong, if kidnap is wrong, if imprisonment without trial and mistreatment are wrong, then how afraid we are at the time we allow those things only serves as an explanation, not an excuse. The same can be said for those who attacked the Twin Towers. The Christian response has to be one of love and even forgiveness for those who commit heinous crimes, but never to excuse the crimes themselves. No matter whose side they are on.

This piece first appeared in The Baptist Times.