Fences: Mending or Rending

Fences: Mending or Rending

Note: This sermon was presented on September 11, 2005 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola. Readings for meditation were Mending Wall, by Robert Frost, The Holy Qur’an 49:13a, and The Picket Fence by Christian Morgenstern, translated by Max Knight (links are to places on the web where the reading can be found).

It was 4 years ago that we woke to the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the failed attack on one unknown target. That morning, all of our lives were changed. Those who felt complacent were shaken. Terrorism before that was largely something that happened somewhere else. It happened either to other people, or only to those people courageous, or some of us probably thought stupid enough, to travel to the wrong places. For most Americans, however, it was somebody else’s problem.

Then the twin towers fell. Terrorism was no longer somebody else’s problem, something we could conveniently dismiss from our minds, assuming those responsible would take care of it. Terrorism and our national response to it became a topic of nearly everyone’s conversation and thinking.

As a result of that day, many things have happened. Decisions have been taken. Diplomatic (and not so diplomatic) missions have been launched. We’ve launched two foreign wars. We’ve reorganized and combined government departments. We have had changes in our national laws, intended by their authors to increase our security and make us safer.

To be specific, we did the natural thing. We started to build fences.

My question to you is this: After all of these activities, are we safer now than we were four years ago?

I’d like to suggest that you look at New Orleans right now as you try to answer that question. We have experienced four years of reorganization, which were supposed to have resulted in providing us with a new, extraordinarily efficient form of response to disaster. Besides being able to predict and thus prevent many terrorist attacks, we were supposed to be able to contain the results and prevent mass destruction.

Well, we have had a disaster. It wasn’t a surprise attack by terrorists. It wasn’t an unpredictable natural disaster. In fact, I watched the development of the computer models and the projected paths of Hurricane Katrina as the storm approached, and the forecasts were extraordinarily accurate and clear. We had warning. Insofar as one can have time when a hurricane is approaching, we had time.

But if the results appear to anyone to be exceptionally efficient, if those results are what one would expect after a crash program of reorganization, training, and planning, then I would guess that person has exceptionally low standards.

The results don’t live up to the expectation.

What is the problem? How can so much energy be expended in a cause with so little in the way of positive results?

Let me suggest that what we are watching is simply all the reasons why political and social action often fail to achieve their intended results, but we’re seeing it in exceptionally large scale.

Economist Henry Hazlitt, in his little book “Economics in one Lesson

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