Last week I attended a 9/11 memorial service at the Botanic Park in Steamboat Springs. Colorado is a long way from Lower Manhattan, the location of the former towers of the World Trade Center, the epicenter of the most horrific attack of terrorism ever on our soil. There were few people attending; it was a long time ago, those just entering college were not even born when it happened. But that event will always be remembered by those who witnessed it. Americans, even now, recall exactly where they were and what they were doing on that fateful day in 1963 when President JFK was assassinated in Dallas. So it is that the memory of what has come to be known as “9/11” is forever etched in the memory of those Americans living on the eleventh day of September 2001. My thoughts of 9/11 and its aftermath are the subject of my essay today. Some of my observations may disturb you - just as they are disturbing to me while I write of them.
My initial reaction was of shock, then amazement, as I watched TV images of the towers collapsing like telescopes folding in upon themselves. First one tower then the other went down as if they were cardboard milk containers standing on end and being crushed by a heavy foot flat into the ground. And then came the awful realization that there were people in there in those doomed edifices that would never get out again. Later, when I was able to digest the news, I began to think of the last phone calls made to loved ones, and the desperate thoughts of those trapped with no way out. I heard of the bravery of firefighters and police officers racing into the towers and my sadness upon when learning that over 350 of New York’s Bravest suffered the same fate as those they were trying to save. My next thought was bewilderment. What kind of people would fly airplanes into buildings to kill themselves and thousands of innocent human beings?
I never considered 9/11 event an existential threat to the United States. United States will never be brought down by a single act of terrorism no matter how spectacular or damaging it may be. I never considered those planes flying into buildings to be more than a hate-filled one-shot deal. For that reason, I was surprised by the amount of fear that was generated. I am excluding, of course, the unimaginable trauma suffered by those personally involved in the horror of the day. A friend literally lost her shoes and ran barefoot all the way from her workplace in the W.T.C. across the Brooklyn Bridge to escape the horror of the collapsing towers. Eileen spoke of that day years later; and I humbly re-learned the lesson that there are things that cannot be imagined unless you walk in others’ shoes. Eileen never worked in New York City again. But I admit to a certain bemusement as I learned of people who lived in fear of another attack. People who would not go to a play on Broadway, people who refused to ride subways, or work in hi-rise buildings. People who demanded the government to do something to “make them safe.” I supposed they were comforted by the sight I witnessed each day of that single soldier and his rifle parading a lonely post back and forth across the George Washington Bridge or seeing groups of uniformed soldiers with machine guns on daily display in the Port Authority bus terminal. My mind turned to thoughts of the London Blitz or the 3000 bombing raids on the people of Malta years ago. How would our populace today stack up against the bravery and stoicism of people at war?
Anger came on the heels of fear. Who the hell were these guys? There was no way the U.S. was going to let them away with this. I was never a fan of President Bush, but as he stood standing atop the smoking rubble with a bull horn in his hand I was proud to be an American. I believed him and I believed in his righteous anger as he told us this act will be avenged. It was quickly ascertained that the plot was hatched by an organization called “Al Qaeda” in the enclaves of remote Afghanistan. Within weeks the terrorist camps were demolished by the overwhelming power of our military might. But then curious things happened.
We learned that the perpetrators were led by a Saudi the U.S. knew as Osama Bin Laden. He and his followers called “AL Qaeda” had been allied with us to dislodge the Russians from their control of Afghanistan. The perpetrators of 9/11 were all identified as Saudis. Saudi Arabia was never brought to account for any part they may have played, including the possible financing of the attack. Instead, the U. S. set its sights on another Arab country, one which had no known part in the attack. The Bush administration willingly stoked the fears of our citizens with warnings of another attack, this time a nuclear one, by another country that had no nuclear power to attack anyone. It was at this point that I began to wonder if we had learned anything from the event of 9/11.
“Never Forget” was the national slogan that caught the spirit of the times. I began to wonder just what this meant. Was it a permanent call for vengeance? A call to remember we were hurt by those who hated us? A call to harbor the anger of the day in perpetuity. If so, I’m afraid we have learned nothing from the loss of so many of our people. I realize that I will be misunderstood by many, especially the knee-jerk “USA USA USA ” crowd. I would rather replace the reactionary slogan “Never Forget” by the more progressive exhortation to “Always Remember.” We should remember the destructive power of hate and remember that “an eye for an eye” eventually turns everyone blind. We should realize that fear is an unproductive emotion. We should remember the many lessons of history that displaying indifference to the sensitivities and cultures of others often brings surprising and painful results to those guilty of it. We should learn to listen. Most of all we should always remember the life and laughter of loved ones lost. We should remember the hurt of the families and friends of the innocents taken from them too soon. We should remember the bravery of those who perished while helping others.
There is a reason I did not chose a picture of the hellish fire and destructive power of hate toppling the towers. I chose a picture instead of the rescuers carrying the lifeless body of Fr. Judge safely from the conflagration. Mycal Judge, the Franciscan priest and Chaplain of the New York City Fire Department died in the line of duty accompanying his firemen into the North Tower. Father Mycal Judge, the first recorded fatality of 9/11, who selflessly sacrificed his life caring for others, will be remembered. The towers that are no more will, in time, be forgotten. It will be the loving memory of those we lost that will survive. No man is an island. It is up to us now to try to shape a better world in their memory.
And that, I believe, is the true lesson to be learned from that horrible day called 9/11.