“Where were you when... ?” That's the question everyone asks each other about any historically significant event. We all want to know where our parents and grandparents were when JFK was shot or when the news of the Pearl Harbor attack broke. It's as if we all have an intricate connection to the event that happened thousands of miles away. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of two airplanes flying into the World Trade Center. Some were just starting their workday. Some were doing their morning workout. Some were eating breakfast.
I was sleeping. It was my Junior year in college and I didn't have classes until noon on Tuesdays. I usually slept until about 10 or 11 AM and did my homework while I ate breakfast. 9/11 was a different Tuesday. My phone rang at about 8:30 AM Central. My thought was, “who the hell would call me this early?! They know I don't have to be up for another two hours!” The girl I was dating at the time was frantic as she told me, “they just blew up the Twin Towers!” My response was a flat, “cool, I didn't know they were slated for demolition today.” She further informed me that two airplanes had flown into the buildings. I was still half asleep and remember saying, “that's one way of doing it I guess.” Besides being pissed off that my sleep had been disrupted, I wasn't one to really care about New York City. I am sure my responses were perceived as insensitive, and perhaps they were. But, I thought the whole conversation I was engaged in was some kind of joke.
Computing and the Internet were still in their infancy. I turned my computer on and pulled up Internet Explorer. I typed in cnn.com and waited … and waited … and … finally after 20 minutes of nothing loading, a “server unavailable” message appeared. Whatever had happened must have been big because news websites were never that busy! I showered, dressed, and headed to the Student Center to see hundreds of fellow students gathered watching the events unfold on CNN live. Even reporters were stunned and trying to piece things together live. News continued to come in about another plane that had crashed into the Pentagon and one that went down in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Classes weren't officially canceled, but became optional.
As a communications major studying broadcasting, my perspective wasn't focused so much on the events, but on the coverage of the events. I remember watching as new footage was aired and struggling between emotions of awe and devastation.
I was impressed at the courage some news photographers showed- even as the towers collapsed and the cloud of debris poured down the streets, they kept rolling. It was awe-inspiring to see their display of professionalism in the face of the tragedy going on around them. I know some will disagree with that sentiment and say that they should have dropped their cameras and rushed in to help. I think if they dropped their cameras, we wouldn't have documented the stories of those who did rush in and help. As difficult as it is for any photojournalist to watch tragedy unfold, it is their job to report. We wouldn't have come together as a nation without their powerful images of both the tragic plane crashes and collapsing towers; and the heroic emergency first responders rushing in to save lives. We witnessed together live an event that forever changed our world. For that moment, we were all American. We weren't divided by politics, race, socioeconomic status, or anything else that divides us. We collectively voiced our outrage at what we were witnessing.
Almost immediately on my campus and around the country cries for revenge and “justice” came forth. I remember thinking that for a “Christian” university, there seemed to be a lot of hostility and hatred welling up. I have never been one to shy away from expressing my opinion. I have also never been one to embrace a popular opinion just because of its popularity. I often find myself on the “wrong” side of the debate on issues. 9/11 and its aftermath were no exception. Sure, I was upset that someone managed to hijack four airplanes and fly two of them into the largest buildings in the world, use another to damage our military's headquarters, and manage to be thwarted at their effort to most likely put the fourth into our President's home. But, as much as the loss of life angered me, the thought of retaliation angered me more. Here we sat, on the evening of such a tragedy, before the dust had even settled (literally), crying for revenge. We didn't know who we even needed revenge on. We didn't even know how many people could be responsible for what happened. I took the opposite view. My opinion was that we should rebuild and move on. Where would vengeance get us? We weren't going to bring back the 2,977 people who lost their lives that day by killing 1 or 100 terrorist leaders and their thousands of followers.
I had been bullied in school as a kid, and I was always told to fight back was to let the bully win. What a bully wants is for their victim to give them a reason to escalate their attacks. With those lessons, I honestly opposed all of our efforts to seek revenge. Of course, having a strong dislike for George Bush helped make that opinion stronger. Still, as an American, I resonated with the desire to find out whose ass needed kicked!
In the days, weeks, and months that passed, our Government embarked on a swift attack on Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly, what started as a revenge mission was sold as “fighting for peace.” I increasingly became the lone voice of opposition on my university campus. I wasn't convinced that going after people with guns and bombs was the best move for the future of our country and world. Slowly whispers spread about 9/11 being an “inside job” and the conspiracy theories about our Government's involvement gained traction with a fringe group of people, self included, who were opposed to Bush and the “War on Terror.”
Along came Michael Moore and his “documentary” Fahrenheit 9/11. Before we knew it, 9/11 went from being an event that united Americans to being a divisive force. I bought into some of the theories, mainly that our government knew about 9/11 like they knew about Pearl Harbor. The historical similarities were eerie to me: our country was in a bad economic downturn; we faced a lot of division at home; and we had a President who felt he needed to prove his worth. I never went so far as to say Bush caused or orchestrated 9/11; but I did believe he used it to accomplish an agenda he kept hidden from the rest of us. There was an increased sense of frustration across the country that the attack happened and that we didn't do anything to prevent it. There was also growing concern that we were chasing the wrong guy.
As humans, it's our natural reaction to find someone or something to place blame on when things go wrong. If someone's late for an appointment, we blame them for not being able to finish our work on time; they blame whoever caused the traffic tie-up that made them late; the circle continues until someone runs out of people to blame. So, while George Bush and company was busy blaming Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Michael Moore and company was busy blaming George Bush and Dick Cheney. Being a lover of history, debate, and logic, I embarked on my own rabbit trail of blame. I reasoned that if more people had given money to the Church during the Crusades, perhaps the Muslims would have been wiped out before they became a bigger problem than they were at that time and there wouldn't have been a 9/11. Tracing things further, I reasoned that if Abraham had not listened to his wife and not slept with her maid, Hagar, a man named Ishmael who is regarded as the father of the Arab race would not have been born (cf. Gen. 6), and there wouldn't have been a 9/11. Furthermore, if God hadn't sent an angel to provide food and water for Hagar after she ran away, she would have died in the desert without giving birth to Ishmael, and there wouldn't have been a 9/11. So, 9/11 was God's fault, and if that was true, I didn't want a part of it. 9/11 was essentially the event that drove me to agnosticism. If there truly was a God and 19 men just hijacked four planes because “God” told them to and killed almost 3,000 people who undoubtedly also believed in “God;” and a President who believed “God” told him to get revenge; and a “God” who said, “turn the other cheek” (cf. Matt. 5:39) which “god” was right?
Religion and deities seemed mythical to me at that moment- fanciful illusions that caused men to do crazy things.
Hatred toward God led to a hatred of mankind. I grew to hate the world around me because the world I was in didn't have room for opposing viewpoints. The world I lived in didn't accept things that were different and had no tolerance for critical thinking. The foray into agnosticism was a trek into a dark, unknown void. I was miserable in my existence. Life had no meaning. Little by little, I began to work my way back toward God. Or, maybe He worked His way back toward me. Either way, my struggles to reconcile the “God” of the Bible with the “God” of Christianity led me to the Catholic Church. In the seven years since my conversion, I have re-hashed the faulty logic of my youth. I still found it hard to support the war, even if I did come to an understanding that there comes a time when we have to punch the bully back in the mouth or he will continue to bully us and others.
So, here I sit ten years after 9/11 pondering how that day impacted me as an individual, us as a nation, and the world in general. A few years ago, Saddam Hussein was captured, tried, convicted, and hanged for his crimes against his own people. Some Americans rejoiced, others continued to cry out that the wrong man was killed in retribution for 9/11. The hunt continued for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda members. Recently, news broke of an operation in Afghanistan that was successful in killing bin Laden. Almost everyone in our country took to the streets and partied shouting, “USA! USA! USA!” as if we'd just won the World Cup. I was more ashamed to be an American that day than I was proud to be an American ten years ago on 9/11. Whether bin Laden was responsible for those attacks or not, he was still a human. Even though his execution was unquestionably necessary and I believe within the scope of Catholic teaching on the death penalty, his death shouldn't have been celebrated in such an undignified manner. That type of classless display lends credence to the militant radical “Muslims” who perpetrated 9/11 and attempted other attacks on US and European soil.
As Americans, we're not so good at “turning the other cheek.” Forgiveness isn't our strong suit. We are very much a nation of fighters. From our War of Independence to the Mexican-American War to the (so-called) Civil War, Americans have taken to the field of battle to resolve differences. Our nation was forged on the battlefield, and that fighting instinct has been handed down through the generations. There is a benefit to that fighting spirit in that we stand up for ourselves and defend the rights and freedoms we enjoy. If the colonists had been content to subject themselves to the tyranny of King George, we might still be a British Commonwealth. If the Federal Government had been content to allow states full sovereignty, some states might still allow slavery. If we didn't try to capture bin Laden and suppress terrorism, how many more 9/11s would happen?
The downside to fighting is the bad reputation our country receives from others. The film Team America: World Police satirizes the “America first” mentality almost to a point that makes patriotism seem un-American. But, the film achieves its point, which is to get us to question: A) whether our American values system and ideals are the “right” values and ideals; and B) whether our government should use force in order to promote those values and ideals. Disguised as crude comedy, political philosophy is questioned before our very eyes. The film's main antagonist is Kim Jong-Il, and the plot surrounds his ambition to fund and arm terrorists in their collective efforts to debase America. The question becomes: Where do we stop in our quest to promote democracy and “fight for peace?” As the film progresses, a news report claims, “Team America has once again managed to piss off the entire world.” I couldn't help but recall that line as hundreds of thousands of “patriotic” Americans cheered the death of bin Laden. Think about how pissed off we are when we see anti-American protests in Arab countries. That's how pissed off they must have been to see that display.
The tenth anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday. It was entirely coincidental that Catholics around the world heard readings from Sirach and Matthew about hatred and forgiveness. We have our readings on a three year cycle, and no matter what date the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time during Year A fell on, we would have heard those same readings. So it must have been a divine coincidence that a decade after our nation faced its most horrific day that the readings focused on forgiveness and loving our enemies. The Gospel (Matt. 18:21-35) was the exchange between Peter and Jesus where Peter says, “how often must I forgive my brother? As many as seven times?” Jesus replies, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” I have heard and read commentaries that say Jesus' reply of “seventy-seven” is figurative and meant as a symbol of infinite forgiveness. Seventy-seven, even if literal, is still a lot! Imagine if someone punched you 77 times and you forgave them each time. That's what kind of forgiveness Jesus is talking about in the Gospel- the kind of forgiveness that is total and pure. Even knowing our offender may commit the same offense, we are called to forgive him over and over again.
Peter was asking, in a roundabout way, “when can I stop forgiving my brother?” In a sense, Peter is trying to figure out when he can punch back. Remember, Peter is the man who cut Malchus' ear off when Jesus was arrested (John 18:10). Peter was a feisty man, much like America is a feisty country. It took a while, but Peter eventually softened and learned how to forgive. He eventually submitted himself to a martyr's death, and I would like to think he somehow echoed Christ's words from the cross, “forgive them for they know not what they do” (cf. Luke 23:34). It may not happen in our lifetime, but when we all embrace forgiveness, we will have won the “fight for peace.”
Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD?"
That verse from our first reading is a great summary for me of what the attitude I have tried to embrace since 9/11. It isn't always easy, but I think it's the right thing to do. Without sounding insensitive to the families of the victims, this verse should be above their beds so they can ponder it day and night. Nothing will bring the dead back. Nothing should prevent us from remembering them either.
The 9/11 Memorial officially opened to the public on September 12, 2011. I think that date is fitting because that is the day we woke up, put our boots on, and went to work rebuilding our lives after the previous day's tragic events. The Memorial itself is a fitting tribute to that day. The footprints of the towers have been transformed into waterfalls. The gaping holes where 110 story buildings collapsed have been turned into 3 story deep pools. The names of all the dead have been permanently cut in bronze and placed around the waterfalls. On the History Channel special about the construction of the Memorial, one of the designers remarked about the waterfalls, “they have a sort of cleansing property.” It is intriguing that this sentiment is somewhat universal. As a Catholic, I believe that the waters of Baptism cleanse us from the stain of Original Sin. Most religions regard water as having symbolic cleansing powers. It is interesting to hear in a secular sense the power of water as a symbol of cleansing then. Perhaps the 9/11 Memorial will allow us as a nation to fully heal from, but not forget the wounds we suffered that day.
Ten years later, we wake up to a different world. A world where peace and security are once again reigning over terror. Sadly though, we are a nation just as divided as we were before 9/11. It was nice to see though, that on the tenth anniversary, we could all come together again! Everyone in the NFL wore ribbons, members of both teams held the American flag that covered the field, “Taps” was played before the start of each block of games (simultaneously in all the stadiums), and we all re-lived that day in our own way. That is the legacy of 9/11- we all come together as one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.