Why 9/11 Matters in Our Troubled World: Shining a light on the dangers of extremist thinking

THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE ‘TRIBUTE IN LIGHT—This photo of  New York City 9/11 memorial lights that visually represent the Twin Towers also includes many of the professionals making it happen. Can you see them standing there, tending these lights? This year, the state of New York is sending special resources to make sure the 9/11 tradition continues safely even in the COVID pandemic. Remembering 9/11 is that important—especially now.


Contributing columnist and author

Each Sept. 11 has tortured my extended family since the terrorist attacks on that date in 2001. This year’s anniversary will be a little different for me, but no less agonizing.

That’s because I’ve spent the last year writing a book about how the murder of my nephew, Karleton Douglas Beye Fyfe, a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center, caused various kinds of trauma in my family and how terrorism rooted in mutilated theology has ravaged not just us but the whole world.

The book—Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety—will be published early next year with a section devoted to how people can counter the kind of strait-jacketed, monochromatic thinking that can (and often does) lead to violence.

The writing process required me to go through page after page of saved, printed-out e-mails from family members—along with various other notes and clips of columns and blog posts I’ve written about all of this. Much of it was for The Kansas City Star, where I was an editorial page columnist at the time the hijacked planes crashed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Each note, column, blog, letter and photo has stabbed my shrapnelled heart with memories of Karleton—or KDBF, as we often called him. At the time of his murder, he was 31 years old with a wife and a toddler son.

Just days before he boarded American Airlines Flight 11 in Boston, where he was a bond analyst for John Hancock, his wife Haven told him she was pregnant again. Parker was born in May 2002. That was just a month before my own first grandchild was born—but because of 9/11, I didn’t see her until she was 10 days old. At her birth, I was on a reporting trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan to help my readers understand Islam, the ancient, honorable religious tradition that the hijackers slimed by acting in ways that showed they didn’t understand the first thing about it.

So day after day this past year I’ve been reliving the first miserable year without KDBF, with whom I was very close. And then the second year and the third and on and on.

From that experience, the idea of absence speaks to me most profoundly. In these 19 years, Karleton has missed not just the birth of a son but also family birthday parties and family weddings, including that of his first cousin about two weeks after 9/11. He’s missed being part of the lives of his parents, his two sisters and their remarkable children. And he’s missed an inevitable move up a career ladder that had pegged him as a future financial world superstar—though one, I quickly add, who knew that money should be no idol but, rather, a way to free people to live generously, energetically, productively.

Multiply my family’s wretched experience by nearly 3,000 to account for the other people slaughtered on 9/11—and then by tens of thousands more to get some sense of the kind of dreadful results from a long list of domestic and international terrorist attacks, from Paris to Bali, Pittsburgh to El Paso to Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.

The world’s great religions all teach love, compassion, mercy and the infinite value of each human being, no matter what. And you can find inspiring examples of people living out those values in many places.

But there also are followers of those same faith traditions who are so certain they know all the answers before they even hear the questions that they imagine God has deputized them to bring discipline and punishment to people who don’t agree with them.

Beyond that, in recent years the U.S. political system has encouraged binary thinking—yes or no, black or white, blue or red in a world that desperately needs people to appreciate paradox, mystery, myth and allegory, people who understand what I was talking about when I titled my last book The Value of Doubt.

Complications: Some members of Karleton’s family didn’t want me to write this new book, while Karleton’s mother, my sister, told me she’s been waiting for a long time for me to write it. It won’t tell our family’s whole story, just my view of that. And it won’t give final answers to how to stop the blinkered thinking that leads to uncompromising dogmatism because those answers only now are beginning to emerge.

But for the 19th anniversary of 9/11 this year, I hope you’ll join my search for ways to stop one-track theology that’s marinated in false certitude. That would honor not just Karleton but everyone who has perished at the hands of extremists as well as the families who have had to find a way forward in their absence.

Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith 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 latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at [email protected].


Bill Tammeus: Holocaust remembrance takes each of us

They Were Just People cover by Bill Tammeus and Jacques Cukierkorn

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

FROM ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM—We must not forget. We must act to prevent future genocide. We are, right now, the people called to these goals.

More than 50 years ago, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial opened in Israel and Raul Hilberg published his 1,400-page history, The Destruction of the European Jews. But, decades passed before Holocaust education became a standard part of history lessons in American public school and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993 in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, witnesses were vanishing by the thousands, which is why Claude Lanzmann spent a decade creating his vast documentary, Shoah, and Steven Spielberg followed with his Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Many historians, journalists and other researchers also have contributed to this effort. Award-winning journalist Bill Tammeus and his co-author Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, a descendant of Polish rabbis, both call Kansas City, Missouri, their hometown. They decided to contribute to this important body of documentation with their book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

As these co-authors continue to share these stories across the U.S., ReadTheSpirit online magazine invited Bill Tammeus to write about their travels and their ongoing work.


In 2004, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I began work on, They Were Just People, we knew that in some ways the book would be timeless.

It proved to be exactly that from the time the University of Missouri Press published it in late 2009. Why? Because unlike books about—say, theological trends or how Pope Francis is affecting the Catholic Church—our book contains stories of what individuals went through to survive the Holocaust, and what each person went through is by now as complete a story as any can be.

The book, in essence, shines a light on a small part of the whole bitter Holocaust experience and, in doing that, seeks to honor both those who survived and those who helped them avoid Hitler’s machinery of murder.

So Jacques and I continue to give talks about the book, and we suspect we will do that for years to come.

One of our talks will happen the evening of Tuesday, August 5, 2014, at the Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit. And we will dedicate that evening to Zygie Allweiss and his family. Zygie is a Detroit-area resident who survived with his brother Sol, now deceased, thanks to help from the Dudzik family, who provided places for the boys to hide on their Polish farm.

Eventually Zygie and Sol came to Detroit and ran service stations there for years.

We are at or near the final years of life for the last of the Holocaust survivors, even many of those who were just children at the time. Indeed, Zygie has had several health issues since I last visited him in 2011, when I came to Detroit for a conference. And several of the 20-some survivors whose stories we tell in our book have died since the book was published. So it was important that we started when we did to spend several years on research, interviewing (in the U.S. and in Poland) and writing. Had we waited much longer some of the stories would have been lost.

It is both an honor and a burden to have become in some ways the voice of the Holocaust survivors in our book—and others as the people in our book in turn represent many other survivors who made it through—because of people whom Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority, names as “Righteous Among the Nations” or more informally: righteous gentiles.

If the post-Holocaust phrase “never again” is to have meaning, we must not forget the reality of the German regime’s plan to destroy Europe’s 9 million Jews (more than three million of whom lived in Poland at the outbreak of World War II). Hitler’s “Final Solution” resulted in 6 million Jewish deaths, many of them in the six extermination camps that the Germans built in Poland.

And so it falls to people like Jacques and me, who are by trade simply story tellers—me as a journalist, Jacques as a rabbi who tells sacred stories—to make sure the world remembers.

And this is not simply an act of nostalgia. As Alvin H. Rosenfeld, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, notes in his 2013 book, Resurgent Antisemitism, hatred of Jews around the globe is dangerously rising again for many reasons. Anti-Judaism (a theological position) and modern antisemitism (more a racial stance full of character stereotyping) have deep roots in world history. In fact, David Nirenberg, in his 2013 book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, traces this bigotry back to ancient Egypt.

Bill Tammeus and his book Woodstock a Story of Middle Americans

Bill Tammeus tells his life story in the new book, “Woodstock,” including some remarkable experiences such as living for two years in India, where his father worked in a university agricultural project. That’s where Bill met Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957. Click these images to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In our book, we tell stories of people who for many reasons—a few of them seemingly irrational—stood against that deep tradition of antisemitism and anti-Judaism and risked their lives to save Jews in Poland.

There is, of course, no silver lining to the Holocaust, which at base is a story of death and death and death. But here and there people who found themselves in the midst of it spoke life and life and life into the face of that death. And part of Jacques’ and my responsibility today is to tell the story of such brave people and of the difference they made in the lives not just of individual Jews but also the history of flawed (but sometimes glorious) humanity.

ALSO NEW TODAY—If you appreciated this column, you’ll also want to read a new, in-depth interview with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biographer Charles Marsh about how Bonhoeffer so clearly saw the dangers of the Nazi regime before other European Christian leaders.


Order a copy of his book, They Were Just People, now through Amazon.

Bill Tammeus spent most of his career as a columnist for The Kansas City Star and he continues to write columns in his own website, now, called “Faith Matters.” To learn more about his long career in journalism, starting with his boyhood and spanning his career with The Star from 1970 to 2008, you will enjoy his new book-length memoir, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.

Bill also writes columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and The National Catholic Reporter. Contact him at [email protected].

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, author of Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide, is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City and founder of Brit Braja Worldwide Jewish Outreach, the world’s first virtual synagogue in Spanish. Contact him at [email protected].

This column is jointly published by Faith Matters and readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.