Twenty years ago today, struggling to digest the events of September 11th, I wrote this column. Two decades later, my reaction is the same. Here’s the column.
Iris Murdoch once said that the whole world can change in fifteen seconds. She was talking about falling in love. Hatred can do the same thing: On September 11th (2001), the world changed. Two huge passenger planes, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into, and collapsed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, killing thousands of people, as television cameras recorded the event live, showing horrific, graphic scenes over and over again. Shortly afterwards, a third hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon, even as a fourth crashed in an open field. Inside of what is supposed to be the most secure place on earth, thousands of innocent people were killed within the space of an hour.
Stunned, muted, we nonetheless tried to speak to the situation. Many of the voices we heard were hard, angry, calling for retaliation and vengeance. Most voices though were gentle, looking only for a safe, intimate place to cry, for someone to hang onto. One Internet media site simply had a blank screen, a silent gesture that spoke eloquently. What, after all, can be said?
The opening lines from the Book of Lamentations offer this haunting description: How deserted she sits, the city once thronged with people! Once the greatest of nations, she is now like a widow.
Later, this same book tells us that there are times when all you can do is to put your face to the dust and wait. Rainer Marie Rilke would agree. Here’s his advice for times like these:
O you lovers that are so gentle, step occasionally into the breath of the sufferers not meant for you. … Do not be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.
The earth knows our pain. Sometimes silence is best.
Yet a few things need to be said even in the raw immediacy of this thing. What?
First, that each life lost was unique, sacred, precious, irreplaceable. None of these persons had ever died before and none of them should have his or her name lost in the anonymity of dying with so many others. Their lives and deaths must be honored individually. This is true too for the suffering of their families and loved ones.
Second, clear voices must call us, especially our governments, towards restraint. Many see this as an attack on civilization itself. They are right. Accordingly, our task is to respond in a civilized way, holding fast always to our belief that violence is wrong, whether it be theirs or ours. The air we breathe out is the air we eventually inhale. Violence begets violence. Terrorism will not be stopped by bitter vengeance. Catharsis doesn’t bring about closure. We shouldn’t be naive about that. Nor, indeed, should we be naive in reverse. These terrorist acts with their utter disregard for life, offer a very clear picture of the world these people would create were they ever given scope and license to do so. They must be stopped and brought to justice. They pose a threat to the world; but in bringing them to justice we must never stoop to their means and, like them, be driven by a hatred that blinds one to justice and the sacredness of life.
No emergency ever allows one to bracket the fundamentals of charity and respect for life. Indeed, horrific tragedies of this sort, call us to just the opposite, namely, to fiercely re-root ourselves in all that is good and Godly – to drive with more courtesy, to take more time for what is important, and to tell those close to us that we love them. Yes, too, it calls us to seek justice and it asks for real courage and self-sacrifice in that quest. We are no longer in ordinary time.
Most of all, this calls us to prayer. What we learned again on September 11th (2001) is that all on our own, we are neither invulnerable nor immortal. We can only continue to live, and to live in joy and peace, by placing our faith in something beyond ourselves. We can never guarantee our own safety and future. We need to acknowledge that in prayer – on our knees, in our churches, to our loved ones, to God, and to everyone whose sincerity makes him or her a brother or sister inside the family of humanity.
Moreover, we are called to hope. We are a resilient people, with faith in the resurrection. Everything that is crucified eventually rises. There is always a morning after. The sun never fails to rise. We need to live our lives in the face of that, even in times of great tragedy.
I end with Rilke’s words: Even those trees you planted as children became too heavy long ago – you couldn’t carry them now. But you can carry the winds … and the open spaces.