As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, three Southern Baptists leaders who held significant leadership roles on Sept. 11, 2001, help us to remember that infamous day in American history and consider its impact on the convention and our world.
At that time, Dr. Richard Land was the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Dr. James Merritt was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Dr. Jerry Rankin was the president of the International Mission Board. Each man shared his experience and reflections with us. Their words remind us of the difficult decisions during that time, the preciousness of our religious liberty, the value of every human life, and our call to take the gospel to the nations.
Jill Waggoner: Where were you when you heard the news on Sept. 11, 2001?
Richard Land: We were in the middle of our trustee meeting. I was getting ready and listening to the news when I saw the first plane hit. I called Bobby Reed, our chief financial officer, and I said, “Have you heard? Call the rental companies and get every rental car you can find, because they are going to shut everything down.” We ended up carpooling some of our trustees home who were there from more distant states.
It was astonishing. It’s hard to describe how shell-shocked everyone was. I had flown out of LaGuardia Airport, right past the Twin Towers, back to Nashville, just the Friday before. So, it was surreal.
James Merritt: Amazingly, I was getting ready to go upstairs and work out before flying to speak at the ERLC! I got a call from Teresa, my wife, telling me that a pilot had flown a plane into the World Trade Center and I might want to turn on the TV. I went back downstairs, and the moment I turned on the TV, I never left my bedroom for eight hours. During that time, I called the church to dismiss everyone to go to their homes immediately.
Jerry Rankin: When I arrived at the IMB office on Sept. 11, there was a notice that Genessa Wells, a journeyman in the Middle East had been killed the night before in a bus accident two weeks before the completion of her term. At 9 a.m., I assembled our executive team for the purpose of activating crisis action procedures of notifying and ministering to family, responding to the trauma of the team on the field, and managing the media response. One of our vice presidents came into the room and suggested we turn on the TV monitor. He had just passed the one in the communications office, and something was happening in New York.
We watched the live events unfold in horror and disbelief for the next two hours and realized this would have global ramifications. Out of that day-long crisis mode, we realized the U.S. would retaliate on any number of Muslim countries and that Muslim population groups all over the world would then reciprocate, not necessarily against missionaries, but any American in their country. Although we have a policy that the decision to evacuate a country was to be made by local missionaries and their field leadership, we realized this was a larger global issue, and there was no way they could have the overview of the situation.
The decision was made to immediately evacuate missionaries in the 20 most dominant Muslim countries, which entailed moving 400 personnel and their families, most of whom were resistant to leaving, already cognizant of the risk in serving in a hostile environment. This was a massive logistical challenge. Where do they go? Where could we immediately provide accommodations for such a large number on nearby fields, not knowing how long they may be displaced or if they could ever return? How do we arrange travel, and how much time should we allow for them to make arrangements for sustaining their ministries and protecting property?
JW: How did 9/11 affect your role at that time?
RL: On a personal level, it made travel permanently more difficult and arduous, as it still is to some degree. It’s hard for people who are younger to understand how much easier it was to travel before 9/11.
The difficulty of the moment was that you wanted to protect your country without infringing on religious liberty and how to navigate that along with the threat posed by terrorists. We had to constanly remind people that 90% of the victims of the jihadists were fellow Muslims who refused to accept this as sole interpretation of Islam. We spoke to these issues, and when there was consensus among Baptists, we relayed that to Congress and the courts. We argued for sunsetting (when specific provisions cease after a certain time) for some of the legislation that was passed so that they would be reviewed every 10 years. We had to recognize legitimate security concerns, but we didn’t want laws set in place that would violate constitutional liberties permanently.
I got a lot of flack for coming out against waterboarding. Congressmen would ask me in private why I was against it. The shorthand definition of torture is something that is likely to produce permanent pyschological or physical damage. Having viewed waterboarding on films used to train our special forces, it was hard for me to imagine that this would not produce permant pychological damage This would be torture. If we engage in torture, then we become no better than our enemies.
To us the big question was: How do you defend religious freedom, including the freedom of Muslims? We said we are all free to advocate for our different faiths and to proselytize . . .
We also said we disagree with everything Muslims say, but we defend to the death their right to say it. When we defend the rights of those of the Muslim faith, we are defending the rights to our faith.