[Note from Barb: This is something I wrote in the weeks following 9/11. It seems appropriate to repost it now amidst the background of the 9/11 Mosque debate. I think it would have seemed insane to me then, that we are having this debate now. And I would have been right.]
“No One Here Is Working Today”
Annoyance: “This better not be a wrong number.” Negotiation: “Better a wrong number than bad news.” And finally amazement: So many thoughts can crowd the human mind so fast. Then, all of these get jumbled around in suspended animation until the voice on the other end settles things.
“Sorry to wake you. Turn on your TV. There has been a terrible accident in New York.” Susannah, a friend from the office was doing her part to rouse the West Coast. Hanging up, I flip on the television. If only I could have back a few more of those minutes before horror invaded and changed everything.
It is still early into the horror of 9-11, but I am already afraid of forgetting. The certainty that time deadens every sensation seems itself to be one more blow to add to the terrorist sucker-punch. Then, I am afraid of never forgetting. The thought that civilization could be forever altered by hate is a devastating concession to the negative. Civilizations should be substantially altered by the good – by the inventiveness of the human mind, or by a growth in understanding.
One of the towers of the World Trade Center billows smoke. Katie and Matt try to make sense of it for me. I’m not sure it’s worth waking up my roommate over. Someone’s stupidity and a lot of people end up dying. The 1993 WTC bombing flashes through my mind. “What is it with those buildings?” Mental note: Never accept a job in a landmark. Another plane trolls into the back of the other Tower. I see it before Matt. Because he doesn’t comment, I start to wonder if it really happened. Maybe it is a helicopter circling around. But then Matt starts to stammer. It has happened again. This is no accident.
9-11 has been called this generation’s Pearl Harbor. This comparison has to do with the shock that invaded American society, and then became a battle cry to marshall a nation. The resemblance stops there. How I envy the Greatest Generation their Pearl Harbor. The enemy was known. The task was clear. The end was in sight even by sunset on that first terrible day. America knew victory would be costly, but victory itself was never in doubt.
Still in our pajamas an hour later, my roommate and I watch quietly as both towers tumble down in quick jerks and starts. They look like dominoes. A lesson from childhood invades. As long as they are lined up, every domino will fall down. And they do. The perfect symmetry of the astonishing towers renders their complete collapse a certainty. I have an appointment this morning to edit together a video of ‘haunting moment’ film clips. I know with certainty that the Towers collapsing will haunt me till the end of my life. Calling to cancel the session, I find strange comfort in the dull grief of the receptionist who takes my message. “No, no one here is working today.” Could anything be so irrelevant as Hollywood? Will I ever again find a movie haunting?
The Hour of Heroes and Saints
Our street borders on the usually bustling region of the city known as the Hollywood hamlet. Tonight, there is an eerie stillness. Several pedestrians pass me on the sidewalk. Each time we avert our eyes from each other. We have all been surprised by grief and it is embarrassing to have been caught unawares. We were all buying and selling and going about our business, and meanwhile groups of people have been hating us and in their simmering anger have been plotting our deaths.
I have heard people say that 9-11 shattered our sense of security. Rather, 9-11 shattered our illusion of security. There can be no security in a world in which there is sin.
I reach the corner impressed by the deathly quiet. I turn and face the row of restaurants expecting to see them all empty. But no, the street cafes all overflow with people. Solemn people. Grieving people. Frightened lonely people. Some few speak in hushed voices. As I pass along the sidewalk, hundreds follow me with their eyes. They too are out desperately seeking distraction.
Just up ahead, a young woman appears on the corner holding a lit candle. Must be an actress. Too thin. Too blond. A passing car lays on its horn in a sign of support. Before long, hundreds more stragglers join her vigil. They sing “God Bless America” crying and staring into the passing traffic. More and more cars add their horns to the strange cacophony. Once again I weep. But I am glad too. I suddenly feel close to these strangers.
My whole life I have never been able to bear “God Bless America” without tears. I have always thought it a curious quirk because I am not sentimental. Now, every hymn about God or country brings with it the sensation of holding back waves of emotion. It is so pathetic. “He had compassion on the crowd for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” I am so tired of weeping.
For the fourth time in two days, an Evangelical Protestant friend calls me with a variation on a single question. “What are we to do? What does the Catholic Church say?” I put my own confusion on auto-pilot. Somebody needs what was invested in me years ago. I draw on my Great Books education, once again grateful for my long-suffering professor’s insistence that thirteenth century philosophical principles are eternally relevant. I lay out for them the standards that the Church labels “Double Effect.” They are comforted.
Even in the horrible darkness inflicted by a brutal sucker-punch, Americans are still concerned to do what is right. Very striking in the aftermath is the universal desire of our people to respond with justice to injustice. There are few if any voices of revenge, and these are silenced immediately by the grief that has given to all of us a new gravity. This is not the time for reprisals.
For all her failures, the Church is still regarded as a voice of moral authority. Especially by those outside of her embrace. My non-Catholic friends call me because, as one put it, “I know the Catholic Church must have some teaching for times like this.” And he was right. We are allowed a proportional response. We are allowed to remove instruments of evil from children who would harm others through them, even if some die while we remove those instruments. We are not allowed vindictiveness. We are not allowed hate.
God only permitted this because in the span of eternity, He could handle it. He can weave out of it more good than evil in the long run. I have had a treasured bookmark since I was in the fourth grade. Mrs. Pierce, my religion teacher gave it to me and I have managed to hang onto it throughout the years. “The hour of crisis is also the hour of heroes and saints.” There were only a handful of evildoers. There are so many hundreds of heroes.
Will God Return to Us Now?
My friend Sylvia is a reporter and a friend of NYC’s Chief of Police. He told her months later that they knew by noon of the attack day that there would be no survivors to find in the rubble of the World Trade Center. The rescue efforts were a ruse instigated by Mayor Giulani to give the city time to get counselors in place and to let families adjust to the possibility of loss. I remember that Sylvia, who had lost a network news job in an Insider-like scenario, was as grateful as I for the lie.
I imagine 9-11 is better compared to Bull Run, or Gettysburg or any of the bloody battles of the Civil War. The enduring source of dull pain comes from the certainty that the enemy is not fighting for territory, but for ideology. It must have felt very futile to many Americans to fight over an idea like personhood. You can’t change a person’s mind by winning a battle. As long as one person is unconvinced, the evil lurks and has power. The Civil War did not resolve the issue of racism as the evils of Reconstruction and segregation proved. Legally, it took over a hundred years to realize the victory of Appomattox. How long both black and white America will suffer the long-term effects of slavery is anyone’s guess.
“The Pentagon? What is that about?” For the hundredth time this morning I am confused. “Alright, I’ve had enough. What the hell is going on?” I look at my roommate for answers but she has none. Neither does CNN, FOX, MSNBC or any of the networks. Waves of anger shake off the grip of shock. “Who did this? Why don’t they take credit for it?” We keep making trips to the refrigerator like movie fans at an all day horror marathon. Food is comforting.
Theoretically, an ideology could be stamped out by literally wiping out all of its adherents. Hence, the suggestion raised by some pundits that we should carpet bomb Afghan mountains. But who are we kidding? Who are the adherents of this kind of hatred against sky-scrapers and airline passengers? My sense is that they are many. I’ve been educated through the years by periodic news footage of Islamic boys dancing and chanting with rage at strange effigies and burning American flags. The impotence of their demonstrations has often struck me as obscene. Naked rage like any human nakedness should not be exposed in the marketplace.
Ideology can only be overcome by conversion. Conversion takes a long time and patience. You only bother to convert someone who is worth it to you. It is so much easier just to kill them. If only we could kill them all. But I am horrified by the thought even as it flashes across my mind. We wouldn’t kill them all even if we could. We are not them.
A reporter interviews a priest in front of the rubble. The priest’s black garb is strangely gray with the pulverized dust of the Towers. There are particles of thousands of people in that dust. After a few preliminary questions, the reporter forgets his training and his humanity spills out at the foot of the rubble mountain. “How could God let this happen, Father?” The priest is moved by the man’s grief and touches his arm. Just then, God interjects. Four firemen carry a wounded man on a stretcher in the background. The priest points at the pile of rubble, “This isn’t God.” He points at the rescuers and their burden, “That is.” The reporter weeps in a strange kind of relief, “Yes. You’re right. Thank you, Father.” I weep too. What has happened here?
I resent every effort to glean lessons from 9-11. We don’t sit at the mouth of hell for instruction. The only lesson is to convict us that there is a mouth of hell and that were it not for the presence of a greater good, we would all be swallowed by the darkness.
Prayer everywhere. Prayer on Capitol Hill. In a display that was unthinkable just a week ago, now Daschel, Kennedy, Lott and Armey linked arm-in-arm sing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. The President calls for national prayer services. Thousands of neophyte believers stream into the Church where I work for a time of prayer at noon on the 14th. The minister directs them to sing a song in one of the hymnals. In front of me, a row of leather clad professionals from the studio down the hill look at each other in confusion. “What is a hymnal?” I am weeping again.
Has God abandoned us? The bizarre spectacle of our public officials suddenly leading us all in prayer reveals the truth. We are not used to prayer in public. We have abandoned God. Will He return to us now? Are prayers issued in fear and terror heard? Will God be fooled? Ah, but He knows we are sheep. The Shepherd does not sneer at the sheep who bleat in fear during a storm.
It is finally night and the cameras in NYC relent in their ceaseless combing of Ground Zero. I need to distract myself until morning when we can count on more televised pictures to fill the hours. Walking outside, the loveliness of the warm L.A. evening strikes me as unfair and inappropriate. Just then a police helicopter surges overhead sweeping the street with a bright light. For the next several weeks, the helicopters are constantly overhead. Everyone who works in Hollywood is absolutely sure the industry is on a terrorist hit list somewhere. Lots of people in entertainment are weathering intense survivor guilt. “It’s our fault they hate us.”
God Bless America Indeed
Some last impressions of the time that I wish to never forget.
The President walks out alone to the mound at Yankee Stadium. Before the eyes of the world, he stands vulnerable. Takes his time, and sights the catcher and pitches a perfect strike to open the World Series…
Those firemen and policemen stay in Tower One even after Tower Two collapses. They continue to race upward. The gravelly last words of one such hero pours out of a brother’s walkie-talkie, “There are still people up there. We can’t leave them.”
The passengers on Flight 93 become aware that they are being used as human missiles. They take a vote.
To the last Americans. De Toqueville had written two hundred years ago about this strange propensity of Americans, “They think that any problem can be solved if only they get together and take a vote.” They decide to die so that other Americans will be spared.
Freedom makes heroism possible. The essence of heroism is in exercising a choice. The hero’s choice is to prefer another’s life to his own. Aristotle wrote that because the state exists to allow men to become virtuous, freedom with all of its pitfalls must be preferred, because there is no virtue without choice. We had become cynical about our countrymen, but the events of 9-11 have surprised us all. We are still more than decadent. Our instincts are still to save life, to give to those in need, to draw together in times of tragedy, to do the right thing even when those who oppose us operate under no such limits.
One last recollection. It is late in September. Fairfax Boulevard is typically frenzied with traffic and pedestrians. Approaching a crowded cross street, I see a plastic car flag flapping through the air, landing in the middle of the intersection. And then a miracle happens. The car ahead of me stops in front of the green light. Hazard lights flash and then a middle-aged woman emerges grim and resolute. She makes her way toward the flag, walking in the center of the intersection. All the cars slide to a stop. Windows are rolled down and a gathering applause fills the air. The woman picks up the flag and pivoting around to all of us, she waves it high in the air. Car horns add quick pulses to the applause as she walks back to her car. As traffic starts up, I am weeping again.
Flags are our new vigil lights. Every flag that waves is suddenly a prayer that America will recall the blessings of God. Freedom, not license. Community not diversity. Prosperity to make virtue possible. Speech to utter the truth. Opportunity to advance human potential and achievement. God bless America indeed.