Op-Ed: Americans Flocked to Churches After 9/11, Then Something Big Changed


Twenty-one years have passed since the modern version of the “date which will live in infamy,” Sept. 11, 2001. Just like its predecessor, Pearl Harbor, it is a day that we must never forget.

But what makes 9/11 so very different from Pearl Harbor is that the target was not a military installation of strategic importance to our adversary. The tragic attacks of 9/11 were aimed at civilians, everyday Americans, going about their business.

Some would say that the strike on the Pentagon held a strategic purpose. But consider how many civilians work at that facility. 9/11 was not conducted by the uniformed military of a foreign nation. We were struck by non-uniformed belligerents, those who ascribed to a very heinous and barbaric view, Islamic jihadist terrorists.

We had weathered their assaults previously, even in New York City with a truck bombing. Overseas, we suffered attacks on our U.S. embassies, in essence strikes on American soil, again targeting civilians. The attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia was aimed explicitly at our deployed troops and civilian contractors.

But there was something very different about the attacks on 9/11. They targeted our homeland. The victims were our friends, neighbors, coworkers and Americans.

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I will never forget that day. I was assigned as an exchange officer serving in the headquarters of the II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune in the Future Operations section. It was a regular morning. I had just finished my physical training, shaved, showered and donned my battle dress uniform in the office. I got a call from my counterpart at our higher headquarters at Marine Forces Atlantic in Virginia. He was frantic and told me over the phone, “Al, something is happening.”

No sooner did he finish speaking than I heard someone screaming that we all needed to get down to our current operations center. As we gathered around the news screens, the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center. This was not a coincidence. We could no longer hope that a plane had veered off course. This was a planned attack, a cheap version of using a Tomahawk cruise missile to strike at the heart of our nation.

The third aircraft struck the Pentagon, where many of my friends were assigned. One of my close friends with whom I had served, Brian Birdwell, would survive but end up undergoing multiple surgeries due to the burns on his body. Viewers will remember the image of Brian in his hospital bed, straining to salute President George W. Bush. Now a Texas state senator, Brian embodies the indomitable warrior spirit of our nation.

The fourth aircraft crashed in the woods of Pennsylvania, not hitting its intended target. We will never forget those brave Americans who, in that crucial moment, called their loved ones, bid them farewell, and then it was “let’s roll.” Their sacrifice saved countless other lives, perhaps even the Capitol or the White House. Their courage should inspire us all, not just on 9/11, but every day.

America had been hit and hit hard, and we watched those towers come down. We watched those people leaping from the buildings to certain death, preferring that to the fiery hell inside. We saw Americans running through the streets as those towers crashed, the ash that covered them. We were in despair and despondency, but there was still hope.

At that time, there were no white, black, Hispanic or Asian delineations. We were all Americans. And there was one place where we gathered to find hope: our churches. We were searching for the answers only God can give us, that peace that transcends all understanding. Yes, we responded with military action, but our nation first responded spiritually to tragedy.

I find it quite telling that in March 2020, when facing the COVID virus, the government first sought to shut down our churches. It was as if they had completely forgotten the lessons of 9/11. We were able to go to Home Depot, McDonald’s, dispensaries and abortion clinics, but not church.

2 Corinthians 3:17 asserts that the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. I admonish my Christian brothers and sisters to recognize that physical enemies abound. However, there is also a spiritual conflagration against which we must bear our battle gear.

One of the best ways for the body of Christ to respond to attacks undermining our Judeo-Christian faith heritage is to get engaged politically. Like the military hammering out potential contingency plans after the 9/11 attack, My Faith Votes is strategically planning and preparing. We must accept the call to service, the call to arms, and step out in faith, not cower in fear and reluctance.

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Our freedoms are embedded in our Judeo-Christian faith heritage. It is worth defending and protecting for future generations.

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Allen West is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas and a former representative of Florida’s 22nd Congressional District. In 2020, he joined My Faith Votes as a spokesperson to mobilize Christians to participate in elections. His newest book is “We Can Overcome: An American Black Conservative Manifesto" (Brown Books, 2020).