Crisis Magazine 2001

Sed Contra: The End of Narcissism

NOVEMBER 1, 2001

September 11 was the beginning of a sea change in American life. It’s not the end of the pursuit of happiness, as Christopher​ Hitchens called it in the Evening Standard, but the end of narcissism.

You can see it on the faces of President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—a return to a stoic style of self-control in political leadership. Gone is the catch-in-the-throat, teary-eyed emotionalism that Americans have grown to expect. Resolve has trumped empathy.

The late sociologist Christopher Lasch aptly described post–World War II America as a culture of self-absorbed individuals, a culture lost in its own reflection, like the mythological Narcissus. The preoccupation with emotional temperature-taking may be the most obvious symptom of narcissism, but the assumption that only tearfulness provides proof of authenticity is its most dangerous.

Some, like columnist Tom Shales in the Washington Post, have already complained about the lack of an overt display of emotion by our nation’s leaders in the wake of the terrorist attacks. This complaint comes from a generation that has been softened up by the artificial paroxysms of television and radio talk shows and the noxious confusion of leadership with celebrity.

So far we have succeeded in focusing our attention on the tragedy of the victims, their families, and their friends. Surprisingly, most of the media, who usually pump people for tears, have exercised restraint. Could it be that the magnitude of this tragedy will end our navel-gazing?

For the first time in years, when a reporter asks, “How do you feel about this?” the question sounds as insipid as it should have sounded all along.

Since the release of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the character of the World War II generation has been extolled for its courage and aplomb. What we see in the slow-burn quality of Bush’s messages to the nation is a return to the emotional tone of that “greatest” generation.

The nation’s reaction to his leadership will put the present nostalgia for World War II heroes to the test: Do we extol them from an easy distance, or do we actually wish for the return of their kind?

My mother once told me that during World War II—when my father, her future husband, was flying bombers over Germany—her job was to live her life as normally as she could. This was her way of fighting the war. Americans are now at war, and we must fight by putting our feet on the ground every morning and approaching each day without the fear or intimidation that the terrorists died trying to instill in us.

As Pope John Paul II has said over and over, we must not be afraid. It is especially important, in light of the pope’s ecumenical efforts, not to be afraid of Muslims in general or the religion of Islam. Times like these expose the noxious strains of prejudice that may lie close to the surface of the most pious faith.

Since the Vietnam War, Americans have grown more out of touch, and out of sympathy, with the military traditions and institutions that have defended our country’s freedom. As a friend of mine said, “Perhaps this tragedy will get us over our Vietnam-phobia.”

In the days ahead, American military personnel will be risking their lives to bring terrorists to justice. We can only hope—indeed we must insist—that all Americans send these soldiers into battle with every encouragement and gesture of support. And when they return, it is an opportunity for this country once again to welcome its military men and women home.

Habits don’t change easily. But habits can change when the trauma is great enough. That is why I believe this country will change for the better as it recovers from September 11.

In his speech at the National Cathedral, Rev. Billy Graham called September 11 “a day of victory.” It was a brave moment, which few spiritual leaders would have risked, much less pulled off. In uttering such a perilous thought, the old evangelist touched the deepest chord of all, reminding us that through our present suffering God’s hand is mysteriously present, guiding each of us, and our whole nation, toward Himself.

Getting Beyond the Spite

Published December 1, 2001

Pro-life efforts rarely make the front page, much less above the fold. In fact, it seems the only time pro-life demonstrations make the evening news is when a handful of abortion activists peddle their pitch to sympathetic media ears across the street from our crowd of protestors.

It took the events of September 11 to put death back in the headlines. This time it wasn’t the death of the unborn but the ghastly, tragic death of thousands who also did not deserve to die.

A trauma of this magnitude is bound to teach us much about ourselves—to expose the strengths and weaknesses of individual and corporate character. Most of what we have learned about ourselves, about our much-derided, decadent culture, has been a welcome surprise: the long-ignored courage and sacrifice of our police, firemen, and armed forces, along with the deep generosity of a philanthropic nation ready to help those who lost friends and family.

But not all the reports have been so edifying. There have been disappointments as well. For example, we have all heard rumblings through pro-life communities, both Protestant and Catholic, that America got what it deserved for harboring a culture of death. Some have said that the towers of the World Trade Center were symbols of America’s godlessness, of its greed, its gross commercialism, and its trade in baby-killing.

Other pro-lifers have complained about the volume of public grief over the events of September 11: How can we lament so loudly, they ask, when nothing is said about the unborn?

You may be thinking these comments are from a radical fringe. They are not. They began shortly after September 11 with the televised statements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and have persisted in spite of the subsequent apologies of those two men.

In these attitudes—revealed suddenly by the flash of an immense tragedy—we can see one reason why the pro-life movement has reached an impasse: It has come to suffer from spite. Such comments suggest that a passionate protest against one form of evil has led some pro-lifers to begrudge the grief of those who suffer from another. Obeying the gospel admonition to “love thy enemy” is difficult. Hating the enemies of life infuses the pro-life message with an unfortunate bitterness.

Don’t get me wrong—I understand how and why these thoughts and feelings can arise. Year after year, we watch children die. They die in the name of love and happiness; they die in the name of equal rights and freedom. How can we not get angry, or be tempted to spite? How can we not pray for the moment when this truth is revealed to all who deny it, who scorn it, laugh at it?

Because children continue to die in this way, all other causes of death seem to pale in comparison. In other words, how can anyone be upset with terrorism when abortion goes on and on?

Those who aim the highest will always face the greatest of spiritual temptations—in this case, the temptation to pride and envy in the cause of defending life. Could anything but pride exploit the September 11 disaster as proof of a given cause, even the pro-life cause? Is it anything but envy that begrudges mourning the thousands who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the four downed airliners?

Now is the time for showing a compassion that isn’t reserved for only one group of victims, no matter how large, no matter how innocent. Many souls have been shaken in the wake of this tragedy. The witness of the Church must be heard without the dissonant voices of pent-up frustrations and resentful “I-told-you-so’s.”

The concern for innocent life can be a new common ground for evangelical outreach. It’s an opportunity for Americans to hear the gospel without spite or bitterness. The pro-life community surely has a large enough heart to embrace the suffering of those who have rejected its pleas.