The Power of a Symbol

Many today are posting remembrances of 9/11 in various media. People are recalling and reflecting on their horror, shock, grief, and sense of loss, and also on the courage and hope and the determination to carry on in the face of events that caused us to reassess our security and our place in the world.

The bombing of WTC was a symbolic act. While there was certainly no small loss of life, the choice to bomb that location rather than another was apparently made not for its potential to inflict maximum citizen casualties but for its symbolic value: the WTC, as a symbol of America’s global influence through commerce, was an obvious target for people feeling threatened by more than just the US’s overt political and military power in the world. The other buildings targeted that day expressed the terrorists’ anger over those more obvious fears.

But what if the target in New York had been different, had been something else?

Today I began teaching an online class on the Old Testament Prophets. Much of the recorded proclamations of the prophets is related to the national tragedy of conquest and exile—an experience that included, at least for the Southern Kingdom, the destruction of a nationally symbolic building, the Jerusalem Temple.[1]

When I teach undergrads and we begin considering the significance of the Temple, I ask them to think back to 9/11. Though many of them were only in the early years of grade school at the time, they remember the shock and horror and the feelings of vulnerability and loss of safety (perhaps picked up mostly vicariously from the adults around them). Most of them can see how the loss of the Temple in the Babylonian’s sacking of Jerusalem was more than just a loss of property; it was a loss of something that symbolized a significant aspect of Judah’s nationhood.

However, the first Temple, like the WTC, was not an unambiguous symbolic structure. The prophets before and after criticized the priesthood for corruption. The division of Israel into Northern and Southern Kingdoms with separate centers of worship meant that the Temple did not represent the aspirations of all of God’s people but became half of the symbolic equation that represented the tensions about right worship, sovereignty, and kingly succession. The destruction of the WTC was in part a protest against things that many Americans were also uncomfortable with in our country: economic imperialism and consumerist excesses that depended on exploiting the rest of the world to feed an insatiable appetite. While no one could justify the action, many Americans might not have embraced the WTC as a symbol of our country prior to the bombing.

But the WTC was not only possible target in the NYC area. When I ask my undergrads to think about the symbolic value of a Temple and what its destruction might mean, I ask them to imagine that the 9/11 bombers had targeted not the WTC but the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes there are actual gasps. The general consensus is that, had that been the case, the reaction of the US would have been much more violent and much more unanimous. The WTC was a modern, practical structure, symbolic of questionable aspirations. The Statue stands almost universally for the deepest and most cherished ideas about what is good and admirable in America’s history and hopes. To have attacked that would have been to attack Americanness itself at its best.

This unfulfilled possibility, I tell my students, is more like the trauma of the destruction of the Second Temple—a building that became so symbolic of the religious and ethnic identity of the Jews that in the century preceding its destruction in 70 a.d., every Jew in the Roman Empire contributed to its upkeep—people who had never seen nor would ever visit the Temple looked to it as symbolic of their identity and their future as a people now far-flung from their homeland.

Whatever happens in future conflicts between America and groups or nations, the significance of symbolic structures—and the ramifications of their destruction—must never be ignored.

WTC and Lady 9-11

[1] It is possible that this was true for the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well, but since the majority of the OT seems to have been written or edited by Judeans, the significance of that conquest and loss is downplayed, and the possible importance and legitimacy of an alternative temple in the north is undercut.


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