Published December 27th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
When al-Qaida terrorists murdered almost 3,000 people in the 9/11 attacks, I was a Kansas City Star editorial page columnist. I wrote the lead commentary piece for an extra edition of the newspaper published that day.
About two-thirds of the way through writing that column, I learned that the son of one of my sisters was a passenger on the first plane to slam into the World Trade Center. My nephew was among the murdered.
So as the world prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of those attacks in the new year, it’s time for me to describe in detail how the vicious death of my nephew traumatized my extended family repeatedly in ways we never could have predicted, just as other families were similarly rocked by these cruel deaths. I will do just that in my new book, “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Hope and Resilience in an Age of Anxiety”. It will be published on Jan. 19 but can be ordered online now.
In the book, I will go beyond recounting the inconsolably painful story of losing Karleton Douglas Beye Fyfe at age 31. I also will explore the perplexing question of why some people get sucked into monochromatic thinking (religious and otherwise) that can lead to violence. And I will suggest steps each of us can take to counter such savage extremism.
In some small way, I hope my book can help us begin to undo the brutal polarization into which the world has drifted. In addition to rigidly fundamentalist approaches to religion, that polarization has created a hard-hearted, myopic, toxic politics that has become susceptible to feral conspiracy theories, disinformation, misinformation and a naked lust for power.
What distresses me, however, is that lots of Americans seem to be just fine with that kind of politics, at least judging by the number of people who voted to continue down that destructive path under the morally vacuous leadership of President Donald J. Trump. Maybe the election of Joe Biden as Trump’s successor was the start of repudiating all that. Maybe.
Still, the hopes for the American experiment and for a peaceful world lie in people who understand what is at stake and how to engage in critical thinking and action that can unplug the binary thinking that led 19 young men to commandeer four airplanes on 9/11 and turn them into bombs, causing waves of pain and grief across the U.S. and around the world.
For the last 19-plus years, I have saved piles of family emails, letters, cards and notes that had to do with Karleton’s life and death and I have drawn on them — as well as other columns and blog posts on the subject — to write the new book.
As I say in the book’s prelude, I want to describe the shattering of our lives that happened because of diseased religion, but “this is not just my version of our family’s personal story. Rather, this is also an account of what can and does happen when people come to believe that they know all the answers to the questions that religion and other disciplines pose, when they are convinced that they have solved all the mysteries, worked through all the ambiguities, the paradoxes, the uncertainties of life and, now bloated with false certitude, are willing to impose their indisputable answers on the world in the company of people who will encourage and support their fantasies, their delusions.”
What plagues the world — and it goes far beyond self-described Muslims who badly distort Islam to murder people in God’s name — is religion rooted not in awe and wonder but in a hunger for conviction, for simplistic, no-doubts orthodoxy. That kind of religion is quite literally killing us.
Religion should have healing and comfort among its primary tasks. But al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who now rests with the fish, and his disciples produced exactly the opposite on 9/11, just as other terrorists more recently have done in a Pittsburgh synagogue, in a Charleston church and on and on and on.
So in my new book I take stock of the shock waves that rolled across my family and the rest of America on 9/11 and ask what, if anything, you and I can do to stop deformed religion from doing additional harm. I just wish I were more confident that extreme, fundamentalist approaches to religion can be unplugged and replaced with generative spiritual approaches that value life. But I have read history, and history doesn’t give me cause for much optimism. Still, I feel a personal call to do what I can to prevent the death of other Karletons and the related traumatizing of other families.
So even though not everyone in my extended family wanted me to write this book, I felt I had no choice. If I don’t speak out against faith-based tyranny and in favor of rationality and hope, I would fail in a moral duty.
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, will be published in January. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.