September 11, 2011
It started out as a slow day at the office. In my case, it was a home office. I was sipping my morning cup of coffee and taking it easy, after a music conference that had kept me up late all weekend. When my housemate hollered at me from the next room, I figured that she must be confused. She was saying something about planes being hijacked and flying into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. My first response was, “Say Wut?”
I set down my newspaper and walked over to her door to ask her to tell me again. Instead of explaining, she handed me the pocket TV she was watching.
It was like a scene from a silent movie. There was the side of a skyscraper. Out of the left side of the screen emerged the belly of a full-sized passenger plane. A moment later, it vanished into the wall of the building, followed by a noiseless eruption of smoke and flame. It dawned on me that she was not caught up in some hallucination. Something was going on that was unimaginable.
So unimaginable, that my first reaction was denial. A terror attack couldn’t really be happening. I had to confirm for myself that it was. I didn’t own a TV, so I jumped online. Sure enough, passenger planes had hit those three buildings. A fourth one, en route to Washington, had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. All flights were being grounded. A deceptively peaceful quiet descended across the skies as the nation braced to see whether another plane would strike.
My girlfriend called from her home, south of Houston, asking whether she should evacuate. She was panicking at the thought that the nearby NASA complex might be a target. After a moment’s reflection, I realized that any location in any big city could conceivably be in a terrorist’s crosshairs. I pictured the chaos that must be happening on the Gulf Coast Freeway, and I suggested she stay put.
As I followed the news over the course of the day, it went from surreal to sur-surreal. By evening, both towers had collapsed, eaten up from within by flames. Some 3,000 people had perished, some of them choosing death by falling over death by fire. Manhattan had turned into a scene from the Holocaust. A ceaseless procession of hollow-eyed people was trudging towards the bridges, under a steady rain of grey ashes that drifted like snowflakes back to earth.
While they filed off the island, others were making their way to what was quickly dubbed Ground Zero. They began the long work of picking through the debris, seeking survivors and finding the remains of the dead.
As we heard their stories, we learned that the hijackers were no respecters of class, race or faith. Their victims came from all walks of life, from stockbrokers to cooks and elevator operators. They represented all religions, as well – including Islam. The New York Times wrote this story of one victim’s widow:
Nearly every Sept. 11 since Sept. 11, Hadidjatou Karamoko Traoré has made sure that her three children were dressed in their best clothes, and taken them from their tidy brick home in the Bronx to the pit where the World Trade Center stood, and where her husband, their father, worked and died.
Abdoul-Karim Traoré was one of about 60 Muslims believed to have died on 9/11…After the attacks, all that was found of Abdoul-Karim Traoré, a cook at the Windows on the World restaurant, were his leather wallet, his identification cards and a few coins.
“I like to go down there and pray and see the place and remember,” said Mrs. Traoré, a native of Ivory Coast who came to the United States in 1997. “When I go there, I feel closer to him. And him to me. I pray for him, too.”
When she prays, she calls God Allah. Mrs. Traoré, 40, says praying in the pit feels entirely natural, even if some of those standing with her — widows and widowers, parents and children — blame her religion for the destruction of that day.
“That’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not because of Allah that these buildings fell.”
Also among the fallen were firefighters, police and officers of the Port Authority. If the terrorists showed us the worst of which human beings are capable, these first responders showed us the best. They went rushing up the steps of the doomed towers while others were running down. 403 of them never made it out.
One who did make it out was David Lim, a Port Authority officer who ran into the North Tower after the first plane hit. CNN tells his story:
Around the 34th floor, he heard the rumble and felt a whoosh of air. The South Tower had collapsed: It didn’t take long to realize the North Tower could be next.
When he arrived on the fifth floor, he spotted firefighters from Ladder Company 6 helping a grandmother from Brooklyn, Josephine Harris. He jumped in and with the others took hold of her and slowly headed down a flight of stairs.
Then it happened: The horrific sounds, crunching crashes and choking dust, as 110 stories of steel, concrete, equipment and people collapsed on top of them.
“I knew it was our building, because there was nothing else left,” said Lim. “It lasted about 15 seconds, but it felt like forever.”
A floor lower, a floor or two higher, and he might be dead. But Lim, Harris and firefighters Mike Meldrum, Matt Komorowski, Bill Butler, Tom Falco, Sal D’Agostino and John Jonas were somehow alive in Stairwell B on the fourth floor.
…D’Agostino, another Ladder Company 6 member, called Lim a “very close friend” and a member of a “special club” — those who were in the north and south towers when they fell and somehow walked away.
“There are only 14 people on this Earth who know what it’s like [to be] in a 110-story building when it collapses,” says D’Agostino.
Civilians also rose to the occasion. One was Welles Crowther, a 24-year old equities trader and volunteer fireman who came to be known as “the man in the red bandanna.” After the second plane hit the South Tower, he helped at least 18 people find the stairwell to safety, from his office on the 104th floor. Reported the New York Times,
A mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief. He was looking for a fire extinguisher. As Judy Wein recalls, he pointed to the stairs and made an announcement that saved lives: Anyone who can walk, get up and walk now. Anyone who can perhaps help others, find someone who needs help and then head down.
In groups of two and three, the survivors struggled to the stairs. A few flights down, they propped up debris blocking their way, leaving a small passageway to slip through.
A few minutes behind this group was Ling Young, who also survived the impact in the sky lobby. She, too, said she had been steered by the man in the red bandanna, hearing him call out: ‘This way to the stairs.’ He trailed her down the stairs. Ms. Young said she soon noticed that he was carrying a woman on his back. Once they reached clearer air, he put her down and went back up.
Crowther’s body was found six months later, among a group of firefighters in the tower’s lobby.
I’ve told you my story of 9/11, and a few stories of horror and heroism from people who were at the twin towers. While we relive those stories, there is also a certain danger in remembering 9/11. The danger lies in pretending, because it happened ten years ago, that it’s over. As the great American novelist William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Faulkner was describing the mindset of the South, a region in which some people are still fighting the Civil War, 146 years after it ended. It’s been a mere decade since the events of 9/11, and the wars it set in motion have yet to end, outside our borders, inside our borders and inside our hearts.
Beyond commemorating the events and the victims of a single tragic day, a full remembrance of 9/11 means looking at the ways in which it has changed us, the ways in which we are still living it, day in and day out. We relive 9/11 every time we do something as simple as standing in line at the airport, or sending an email to a loved one in the armed forces.
What I’d like to focus on, in the rest of these remarks, are the ways in which the tragedy has changed us spiritually. The losses we suffered on that grim day went beyond the physical deaths of 3,000 people and the grief of their friends and family. Part of al-Qaeda’s goal was to strike a psychological and spiritual wound, into the depths of America’s soul.
In an interview that Osama bin Laden gave a month after the attacks, he proclaimed, “The values of this Western civilization under the leadership of America have been destroyed. Those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights, and humanity have been destroyed. They have gone up in smoke…I tell you freedom and human rights in America are doomed.”
The essence of the wound he inflicted was to infect us with fear. Coming off the swagger of winning the Cold War and being the world’s only superpower, the shock of 9/11 delivered a toxic blow to America’s self-confidence. Before we could begin to recover, we were slammed again, by anthrax mailings, recession, two wars and the hate crimes of mosques bombed and Muslims murdered. With stunning speed, we found ourselves in a permanent state of homeland insecurity.
If the psychological injury was to our sense of safety, the spiritual wound was to our core principles. The United States was not founded on any particular religion, but our founding documents set forth a moral code as clear and rigorous as the Ten Commandments: All citizens are equal under the law. Each one has freedom to speak, freedom to worship and freedom from government interference in their private lives. Each one has a right to due process when accused of a crime. The American moral code can be summed up in five eloquent words: liberty and justice for all.
9/11 has tested every element of that code. It’s forced us to ask ourselves how seriously we mean it. Our efforts to catch the perpetrators, and to prevent more attacks, have confronted us with complex moral questions that, too often, have been reduced to sound bites.
On the positive side, the so-called “war on terror” has achieved many of its original goals. America has not suffered another major terrorist attack, and the leadership of al-Qaeda, including bin Laden himself, has been mostly captured or killed.
But these successes have cost us dearly, in our sense of what America stands for. Ten years ago, who could foresee a Guantanamo Bay or an Abu Graib? Who would imagine our country would detain hundreds of people with no appeal to a judge or a jury? That public officials would call the Geneva Conventions “quaint” while debating the acceptable limits of torture? That we would launch a “preventive war?”
Each of these moral dilemmas is a variation on one basic conflict: between justice and security. It’s easy to brag about our high-minded principles when we’re safe and sound, when we’re insulated by a million and a half soldiers and two oceans from the violence that much of the world calls daily life. Over the past ten years, we’ve learned that it’s just as easy to throw those principles overboard when we feel threatened.
The middle way, the Unitarian Universalist way, is to test old principles against new experience. In the years since 9/11, I have questioned many of mine. After being a lifelong pacifist, I reluctantly supported our invasion of Afghanistan. I willingly gave up some of my privacy when boarding an airplane.
At the same time, I opposed the invasion of Iraq, waterboarding and secret prisons. I concluded that these excesses were not necessary for fighting terror. Experience showed me that abandoning our time-tested moral principles ended up creating more terrorists and making us less secure.
Many Unitarian Universalists were wrestling with the same questions. Part of our faith’s response to 9/11 was to issue two Statements of Conscience, on civil liberties and creating peace. We acknowledged the right of self-defense, but we repudiated preventive war and torture. We called for repealing the PATRIOT Act and restoring due process of law. We wrote:
Nearly every generation faces grave challenges to the liberties for which so many men and women have fought—the liberties for which many of our ancestors placed themselves in peril so that future generations could live in freedom. Balancing freedom and security is our challenge. Let us heed the words of Benjamin Franklin engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, I suggest that the best way to remember our lost brothers, sisters and compatriots is to repudiate terror in all forms and on all sides. Let us remember not only those who died on that terrible day, but the hundreds of thousands of victims of the wars that followed. Let us remember our servicemen and women, who have sacrificed lives, limbs and sanity. Let us honor them all, by asking the hard questions about how to balance security with liberty, and to preserve the freedoms for which they died.
I leave you with no answers, but with this question, posed by Austin journalist Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his history of al-Qaeda:
Al-Qaeda will fade away eventually…But the security state that we have created to fight it will remain. It is part of our economy, our laws, our culture and our image now of who we are…
In waging this campaign against terrorism, Americans need to realize that we have pushed aside some of the most valuable weapons we have: our concern for human rights, open government and fundamental standards of justice. Such rights are rare in history and difficult to restore once they’ve been lost. The actions we have taken in the “war on terror” may have made us safer. They have certainly made us a different country. But is it the country we want to be?