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9/11 and Pope John Paul II's Challenge


Enhanced Terror
The Dawn of Communications
What Message Will We Share?

Who can forget the day five years ago when terrorists wreaked havoc in the United States, toppling the majestic World Trade Towers, crashing into the Pentagon and failing an attempt to strike further damage when stopped by selfless heroes over Pennsylvania?

It is no less a national memory than Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Hundreds perished and many more have suffered the losses of 9/11. In the years since, our nation has undergone a most unpleasant wake-up call: The days of American isolationism are long gone, indeed.

We’ve scrambled to secure our country in ways unimaginable 10 years ago. Because of terrorists, we’ve gone to war halfway around the world, certainly in Afghanistan, and, depending on whom you consult about reasons, again in Iraq.

Why now? What’s different about the world today? In a word: communication. The advent of Internet and satellite communications has changed us from dreaming of a global village to actually living in one.

Ask anyone who travels internationally, or anyone who enjoys media from around the world. One can listen to radio stations from a distant hometown via Internet or watch TV stations, via cable and satellite, from across the globe.

Cell phones unite families who, 20 or 30 years ago, would have fallen out of contact. Genealogy searches on the Internet are a booming business as many Americans look back across the oceans to find their ancestry.

Transnational corporations are just that: transnational, and in ways more efficient than ever. Business telephone conference calls or Internet conferences between India, China, Europe, South America, North America—practically everywhere—are commonplace.

More than at any other time in history, what happens in one part of the world affects what happens in another. And everybody knows about it right away.


Enhanced Terror

We now have enormous enterprises devoted to tracking terrorist activities worldwide on our computer and telephone networks.

The “Dark Web,” at the University of Arizona, is one example. There, a room full of computers and the people who operate them track the Internet communications of about 1,500 terrorist and extremist organizations. Much of the attention is devoted to networks of disgruntled militant Muslims like Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

Anyone who knows even the basics of Islam realizes that these militants are a tiny and unpopular minority. Islam is not a violent, hateful faith, as St. Francis himself learned when he visited with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219. But the militants are potent, and they use modern communications to their great advantage.

Internet and cell-phone communications, as a matter of fact, make the whole international terrorist network possible.

The Dawn of Communications

The late Pope John Paul II understood, in the greatest sense, what was happening, well before 9/11. He named for the Catholic Church, indeed for the entire world, in his 1991 encyclical Mission of the Redeemer, modern communications as the Aereopagus of today.

He was referring to that hill in ancient Athens where the philosophers of the day would share their ideas with any who would listen. It was there St. Paul preached the gospel: There, like the means of modern communication, “all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new” (see Acts 17:21-34).

In this new era of instant communication, the rules have changed. The very same technology that al Qaeda uses to empower terrorists to do evil must be used by us Christians to spread a gospel of peace and love, of awareness and understanding.

What Message Will We Share?

So much of the world is sharing ideas in an entirely new way! And in some ways, as Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s, the medium is the message.

McLuhan, a devoted Catholic, was not speaking of our deepest truth. That’s a common misunderstanding. He was telling us, that, at the level of human interaction, the way that we communicate with each other (the “medium,” and especially the communications media) speaks volumes about who we are and what we stand for (the “message”). Over the years we’ve discovered that those media also affect the way we think, as media-savvy parents know well!

At the dawn of our new era of communications, we are left with the oldest of human choices. Will we use our media to bring people together or to tear them apart?

More to the point, will we Catholics look seriously to embracing new ways of being present to each other, across new distances, to help spread the Good News of Jesus? Will we have Junipero Serras and Francis Xaviers in cyberspace? Or will we merely sit back and worry about the ills that are coming as we rub shoulders more and more with the rest of humanity?

Five years have passed since the horrors of 9/11. We live, in many ways, in a different world. But it’s the same world that Christ came to redeem. How can we use the tools of communication to be faithful to his call?—J.F.

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