The New Terrorism

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 15, 1996

The disadvantage of not leaving our Window on the World open during the summer is that we do not get a chance to talk about the summer news. A good portion of the summer news in 1996 had to do with the New Terrorism.

In July we were interrupted by the downing of a TWA flight just off the coast of Long Island, most likely by a terrorist missile. The shock of all that was just beginning to wear off when we were surprised by terror again. We were just discovering the sport of gymnastics and little Kerri Strug—she of the broken ankle, the gritty smile and the stork-like dismount—was sure to be sporting Olympic gold on the cover of the national magazines. Then something went bang in the night. There was an explosion at the Olympic Park in Atlanta, with casualties.

Terrorism may defined as “the use of unpredictable violence, often directed against innocent bystanders, in order to achieve political objectives by creating a climate of terror” [D. J. E. Attwood, “Terrorism,” in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, IVP, 1995]. It is a relatively recent phenomenon. Earlier centuries faced plenty of terror, but not much terrorism. The spread of terrorism has been abetted by two developments of the late twentieth century: sudden death and instant media coverage.

First, terrorism depends upon sophisticated military technology. To carry out a terrorist act requires modern “advances” in weaponry such as plastic explosives and surface-to-air missiles. Second, terrorism depends upon instantaneous, universal media coverage. The advent of television and other forms of electronic media has given terrorists the celebrity status they crave.

If terrorism is relatively new, then terrorism on American shores is brand new. This is what I mean by the “New Terrorism”: terrorism that strikes close to where we live. The New Terrorism involves mail we might open, tall buildings we might enter, daycare centers we might frequent, sporting events we might attend, airlines we might travel. Terrorism used to be mainly someone else's problem, somewhere else in the world. Not any more. Now it is our problem, in our part of the world.

The events of this summer were not our first experiences of the New Terrorism, and they are not likely to be our last. We Americans have lost our naïve sense of personal security.

Are you afraid of the New Terrorism? You might not be. There are plenty of reasons to be unafraid. You might feel safe from terrorism because the odds are with you. The statistical probability is that you will never be the victim of a terrorist act. But the trouble with statistics is that they do not always eliminate your fears. When you strap on your seat-belt in the airplane you do not think about the people who made it, you think about the people who didn't. After all, the probabilities were with them, too.

Still, you might feel safe from terrorism because the governing authorities have the uncanny knack of bringing terrorists to justice. We have watched with fascination as the FBI, the CIA and others have solved the mysteries of the Lockerbie crash and the World Trade Center bombing. Even the TWA tragedy may yet be solved. However, bringing a terrorist to justice is much less comforting than stopping a terrorist in the first place.

So you might feel safe from terrorism because new measures are being taken to guarantee your safety. If you have traveled anywhere by airplane lately, you know that check-in procedures have become more rigorous. New X-ray technology is on the way to provide countermeasures to terrorism. But no system is foolproof, and America's large, indefensible borders still make an inviting target.

You might take some comfort in statistics, sleuths and safeguards, but I know a much better reason to be free from fear. I know a psalm that is written to the believer who is afraid of terrorists and everything else that goes bump in the night. Psalm 91 starts out like this:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High

will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust” (vv. 1-2).

The Lord is a shelter, a shadow, a refuge, a fortress and a trust for the Christian. Listen to the kinds of situations in which the Lord gives refuge; it sounds as if the psalmist had heard of the New Terrorism:

Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare

and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers,

and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

nor the plague that destroys at midday.

For he will command his angels concerning you

to guard you in all your ways;

they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone (vv. 3-7, 11-12).

Those verses describe the believer's freedom from fear in the face of danger. They do not mean that Christians do not die or that they are never victims of terrorism. They do and they are, sometimes. Christians live in a world in which there are such things as fowler's snares, deadly pestilences, terrors by night and arrows by day. Nevertheless, the believer is not afraid of these things because he or she finds eternal protection under the shadow of God's wings.

We will be singing about that eternal, feathery protection every Sunday evening this year. We will sing about it later tonight when we sing our new offertory hymn: “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night.” The first verse of that hymn echoes the language of Psalm 91: “Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath thine own almighty wings” [Thomas Ken, 1709]. It will be good to sing that prayer together week by week, asking God to keep us safe from terrors both old and new.

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org