In an effort to reflect and remember, we asked various contributors to Christ and Pop Culture to respond to the question: “How have the events of 9/11 changed or impacted you?” Here are nine varied responses to that question. Please share your own response in the comments.
“Preparation for Mourning” by Ben Bartlett, writer and associate editor
On the morning of September 11, 2001, my college roommate came bursting into our room. “Well, the terrorists are blowing us to hell,” he stated, matter-of-factly. With that, we began immersing ourselves in the details. Who had done it? How? Where were the weaknesses in the system? Why didn’t we know about these groups earlier? How did moderate Muslims view the actions of the extremists? Even our favorite show, The West Wing, took time off to grapple with these sorts of questions.
But looking back, those details didn’t change me. Instead, that time defined for me what it means to mourn. Some examples of mourning were beautiful and healing, like President Bush’s amazing speech at the National Cathedral. Other examples were inspiring, like the righteous anger of firemen and policemen in New York City. Some examples over time have proven discouraging, like spats over Muslim worship centers or arguments about office space. And still other examples merely take your breath away with pain, like this morning on the radio when a father told of losing his two sons in the towers, and a boy told of losing his grandpa.
A few years later, when my mom died, I was surprised by how much my categories for mourning had been shaped by that horrible day. I was grateful for how prepared I was, and how much more aware I was of the fact that suffering is a reality shared by all people. And I was able to praise God for, as the President said, “God’s signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that His purposes are not always our own; yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral, are known and heard and understood.”
“Turning Toward the World” by Drew Dixon, writer and editor
I was a freshman in college when the 9/11 attacks happened and I remember having a conversation about the events a few weeks afterward with my campus minister. I don’t remember exactly what brought it up but he referred to 9/11 as a “small event.” I will never forget this conversation because I certainly never thought of 9/11 as small—it was anything but small. I asked my campus minister to explain and he went on to share a number of statistics about the hundreds of people who die every day from preventable diseases, starvation, and lack of clean water. He spoke of the hundreds of terrorist attacks that happen every day in various parts of the world. He shared with me about the thousands of people who were victims of civil wars in Africa with which they had very little to do. He told me about the ethnic cleansing and genocide committed within my lifetime.
I don’t mean to downplay the significance of 9/11 or the personal tragedy it must have been for those who lost friends and family in the attacks, but every September I remember this conversation. At the time I was a naïve college freshman largely unaware of the tragedies happening every day across the globe. Thanks to this conversation, 9/11 not only opened my eyes to the vulnerability of my own country but also to that of the rest of the world. As Christians we don’t have the option to only care about our own problems. God through Christ is gathering to himself a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. I learned to mourn for those who mourn both in my nation as well as the rest of the world. As strange as it may sound, every September reminds me of my cultural ignorance and the day I determined not to turn a blind eye to global suffering.
“The Importance of Being Earnest and Not-So-Earnest” by Richard Clark, writer and editor-in-chief
Tragedies happen all the time, but large-scale, symbolism-infused national tragedies happen less often. When those things happen, we all mourn for a period of time. I spent about a day simply feeling sad, depressed, fearful, frustrated and angry. But then eventually, I had to wake up, see those around me, and acknowledge their pain. The hardest thing about this was that everyone reacted differently. Some collapsed and hid out in their homes for long periods of times. Others argued politics. Some wanted revenge. Some just wanted to laugh. I was one of those guys that wanted to laugh… so, so desperately.
I had my own tension and sadness, so I dealt with it in spite of those around me. I remember loving The Onion around that time. I will never forget watching Zoolander two short weeks after the attacks. It was helpful for me to “move on” by laughing at the absurdities of life and death, sin and foibles. Still, it was also important not to “move on” too fast. Our country’s most popular and respected entertainers knew this – that there is a time for both laughter and silence, satire and sincerity. If there’s anything 9/11 did to shape me, it was to teach me the importance of both sides of the equation. Satire becomes cynicism if sincerity is absent, and sincerity becomes sentimentalism without a sense of the irony and absurdity of life.
“For Better and/or Worse” by Jason Morehead, writer and associate editor
As I walked into work on the morning of 9/11, I ran into a co-worker who had just heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It seemed so absurd, so surreal, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. We spent the rest of the day glued to news websites and the break-room TV, trying to figure out just what in the hell was going on. Several co-workers were flying home from a conference that day, and we immediately thought of their safety: we had no idea how many more planes would be falling from the sky that day. Indeed, nobody seemed to have a clue about anything that was happening.
One would hope that we’ve been able to make sense of that tragic day, that we’ve gained some sort of clue. But to be perfectly blunt, I’m not sure we’ve learned much of anything. Since 9/11, we’ve fought bloody wars in the Middle East that have been marked by scandal, corruption, and graphic displays of inhumanity that tarnished our global image. Our enemies have proven difficult to track down and root out. Our civic freedoms have eroded and been traded for “security theater”. Religious tension and intolerance has grown, and our politics have grown darker, more vehement and vitriolic.
But on second thought, maybe we have learned something, i.e., that the world is not, nor has it ever been, as simple as we thought it was, and that we aren’t as competent as we’d thought. The last decade has been marked by numerous botched efforts to make us stronger and more secure. True, there have been victories along the way, instances where calamity was avoided and justice served. But overall, I don’t think we see a good track record. Our human institutions are mighty, but they are not infallible, and one of the great blessings in all of this may be that realization. It’s a realization that can spur us onto cynicism, or it could be the realization that drives us to seek rest and peace at the Throne of God, trusting Him to help us make sense of a world that often seems to be spinning increasingly out of control.
It took time for me to grasp the destructiveness of 9/11. Sure, I watched the news coverage and I read the personal accounts. But 9/11 couldn’t be contained in one day’s news. It was an ongoing ache.
But that is not how I saw terrorist attacks in other countries. I saw them as onetime news events, reported today and done tomorrow. Through 9/11, I saw an emotional detachment in myself that I didn’t care for. I was detached from the grief, pain, and anxiety that people in other countries face every day.
Now, when I see terrorist attacks in other countries, I think about the people affected. I wonder how they will grieve. I beg God to comfort to them and to prompt the believers who are near to be tangible agents of His love. I remember that people in other countries experience regular incidences of terror, and their ache is ongoing too.
“A New Paradigm” by Seth T. Hahne, illustrator
The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon a decade ago affected me in powerful ways. Over the last ten years, my resolve to empathize with those from cultures outside my own has solidified, my distrust of the American leadership has grown more entrenched, my distaste for patriotism has deepened, and my conviction that we as a nation have learned too little from ten years of opportunity saddens me. The attack on September 11th deeply horrified me and left me emotionally drained, but it was the aftermath that I feel holds the true power over us. It’s changing us in good ways and bad. Personally, the fact of the September 11th attacks forced me to speed the process by which I was coming to reevaluate my own perspective on a host of issues, not the least of which was the Middle East and the American involvement there. I had already read Palestine, seen Grave of the Fireflies, and read Cat’s Cradle. After the Towers fell, I noted a lot of discouraging bloodthirstiness from fellow believers. At the end of 2003 I saw Fog of War and was ready for a new paradigm.
I did not become a pacifist, but compared to the policy so many believers support, I might as well be. I suppose one could consider my position to be one of non-agression. I am okay with self-defense, but I don’t believe in pre-emptive strikes. I’m okay with domestic security that doesn’t thwart our liberties, but I don’t believe in retaliation that involves civilian populations. I’m okay with participation in the U.N., but I don’t believe in nationally intervening militarily in foreign affairs. I might have come to these conclusions eventually regardless, but the fallout from the September 11th attacks sped me to these things much more quickly by simply forcing the issue.
There are any number of evils that have come out of those terrorists using planes as missiles, but I don’t wish to dwell on those here. Instead, here are some of the good things that have come from that terrible event:
- I am more ready to listen to the reasons others have for believing the things they do.
- I am less entrenched in the ideals promoted by those around me and more willing to consider alternative explanations.
- I am more willing to think compassionately about my enemies.
- I am less willing to believe evil of another simply because I do not understand them.
- I am more convinced that the church is to be a harbour of mercy—for those who are our neighbors and for those who oppose us.
- I am more strongly convinced that we need to be agents of truth, shedding light and love where we go, and doing our best to remain free of the corruption of false information and ideologies.
- I am more strongly prompted to the recognition that we who believe are ambassadors of a kingdom whose citizenship is not arbitrarily defined by accidents of birth but by love—us for Christ and Christ for us.
These are changes in me to which September 11th has contributed and for these I thank God that what mankind intended for evil, God has intended for good.
“Beyond Awareness” by Kirk Bozeman, writer
After the tragedy of 9/11 and the discussions that followed, being world-aware started to become a necessity for me, not just a hobby for the politically obsessed and personally bored. If the ideas and religions of people thousands of miles away could affect our lives in such an irreparable and intimate way, the world must be much, much smaller than I thought. As a very American college student, this was an eye-opening idea. The world wasn’t simply an interesting place to study in a humanities class, it was a constantly interacting community of cultures that I was unquestionably a part of. It seemed I needed to get on board with that thought, or else be swept away.
Not only did this awareness seem like a necessity, it was solid and sincere, not just a wispy ideal. Real people with a real ideological commitment had committed this atrocity against real people, most of whom were very similar to me. This wasn’t nameless and faceless like the overseas events that back page newspaper articles talked about, this one was actually “real”. Now that I knew how this felt, I started to see that these back page atrocities were just as real, terrible, terrifying, and heart-wrenching as this one that had hit so close to home. Not only did it seem necessary to be aware of the rest of the world, it seemed necessary to actually care about the people who comprise it.
“We’re going to war” by Stewart Johns, former writer
“We’re going to war,” said a friend of mine as we met in the hall on the way to our high school auditorium. He said it with an air of challenge and bravado about him. I was coming from music appreciation and had no idea why the school had been called to assembly, but he knew. My friend went on to describe what happened and inevitably I saw the tragedy of 9/11 with my own eyes, but more than anything else about that day I remember first hearing those words.
The words of my friend affected me then and still affect me now. Maybe its because I see more clearly now how those words have been fulfilled in numerous ways. Maybe its because, in my youth, I felt invincible and that if called to said “war” I would respond with great valor and heroics. More likely though, it was my brother being in basic training and in the beginning stages of what would become multiple year-long deployments to desert countries that has had such an impact on me. The events of 9/11 changed me in more ways than I can articulate, but the words “we’re going to war” and how American history has unfolded since rings loudest in my thoughts to this day.
“…” by Erin Newcomb, writer
In the fall of 2001, I was working as a research assistant for an English professor. The job entailed immersing myself in the minute details of Jonathan Swift’s poetry; I loved the job and the professor who served as my supervisor. Our meetings often delved into random tangents, like when he asked me if I ever got my entire lunch from a vending machine or questioned me in detail about the process of making English muffin pizzas. We talked about Swift, too. A lot.
Those conversations were a far cry from the one we had on the morning of September 11. I came downstairs in my apartment to find a roommate crying in front of the news. It was early in the morning, and we had no idea if this was an accident or an act of aggression. Again and again, we watched the images of the plane crashing into the Twin Towers. I unglued myself from the TV and headed to my professor’s office. He hadn’t looked at the news since arriving at work, and he had no idea what was going on. I tried to explain the situation, but it was inexplicable, with no answer to what or why or who. 9/11 represented a breach in my bizarre, fascinating, and insular world. We could talk endlessly about seventeenth-century poetry and junk food, but for 9/11, we had no words.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.