The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

David Forte

February 1, 2002

We all know the difference. We saw it for months in our newspapers and magazines, and on our televisions. The followers of bin Laden killed the innocent. The firefighters and police saved the innocent. The terrorists, supposedly true Muslims, toasted their imminent murderous mission with alcohol. The New Yorkers, genuinely true Americans, gave their blood for the expected casualties. In an early interview after the bombing, bin Laden himself recognized the difference. The Americans love life too much, he said disparagingly. His Muslim followers desire death, he proudly declared. As Charles Krauthammer so trenchantly observed, there could not be a clearer example of the nihilism that impels the terrorist movement against the United States.

It was replicated in the words of a Taliban soldier who, after brutally torturing an Afghani for supposedly being a secret Christian, asked his superior, “Let me kill him, so that Allah will be pleased with me.” Whatever that soldier called God, he was not worshipping the God of life.

Some think that it did not matter to the terrorists that their victims were members of many nationalities, as well as of many nations; that they were of many religions, of many races, of many ages, and of many occupations. In fact, it did matter to the terrorists that their victims were such people, for those people in the World Trade Center were the personification of what it means to live in a country like ours. As Theodore Olson said in tribute to his slain wife Barbara Olson, the victims were “Americans, Americans who believed in the values that their country stands for: liberty, democracy, freedom and equality….The people who killed them, who planned their death, hate America and Americans for that very reason.”

The response of our American heroes was to answer the call for death with the call for life. We sought more to give blood rather than shed it. We went prayerfully to our churches, not to war rallies. While bin Laden could only speak anti-American xenophobia, President Bush visited a mosque and condemned anti-Muslim xenophobia. We gave our treasure to the families of those who had perished. Cities and towns across the country contributed to replace New York’s lost fire police and rescue equipment.

While bin Laden reveled in death, Americans understood the statement of Christ: “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Mt 22:22. They took seriously the divine command: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” De 30:19. Bin Laden chose death, and he and his ideological seed will die.

But some Americans—few, exceptional, aberrational—imbibed the same poison bin Laden was seeking to spread throughout the world. Shortly after the attacks on September 11, a number of mosques were vandalized and threatened with destruction. Two men, a Pakistani Muslim and a Sikh were shot and killed. One man has been charged with first degree murder in the killing of the Sikh.

Some apparently lone and malevolent person spread anthrax spores into the mail and government offices. An anti-abortionist sent anthrax threats and powder (it turned out to be inert) by Federal Express to Planned Parenthood offices and abortion facilities throughout the country. And Planned Parenthood itself offered free abortions to the widows of those who lost their husbands in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. One might have hoped that in the face of death, Planned Parenthood could have offered something other than more death.

That brings us to see what the genuine American spirit is. Across the country, Americans did not contribute money to eliminate the offspring of the heroes of 9/11, but to educate them. They did not vent their anger against Islam, but against organized charities that failed to deliver expected aid to the wounded families. And in an ironic dissent to the call to spend more to boost the economy, Americans found they did not need all those material goods they only recently thought they just had to have. In every realm of life, we turned, however haltingly, from the signs of death to the signs of life.

President Bush observed, “After America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves.” That self, we saw, was a spirit, impelled by life to celebrate life. This is a hard moment in the life of our country, but despite the pain, it is a good one. Today, when we see a bumper sticker or a tee shirt that reads “Choose Life,” we now know how much that really means.

David Forte is a Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio and the author of Islamic Studies: Classical and Contemporary Applications. He is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio.