Few big questions, no answers, in Rockaway

Like many of you, I spent much of today watching a surreal combination of two kinds of television programing — 9/11 coverage and professional football. What is there to say about that?

I was thankful — “happy” is simply not the right word — that MSNBC decided to run almost all of its original Sept. 11 coverage. Nothing could have shown how much our world has changed than the images and words from that time. Nothing.

Your GetReligionistas will wait for the actual coverage of the memorial rites to make comments on how the religious content was handled. Will anyone, for example, offer factual insight into President Obama’s choice to read Psalm 46? It was a choice that was both fitting and bold, especially this cadence:

The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved.
He uttered his voice.
The earth melted.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come behold the works of the Lord who has made desolations in the Earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the Earth.

As always, theodicy was everywhere.

America is still the kind of place in which ordinary people demand both questions and prayers. There will simply be too much religion-beat material today and tomorrow to read and critique.

However, the question for me is whether the press will deal with the religious content of the day, rather than simply nod at the words and the images. Out of all of the material in the Sunday papers, it was a chunk of the massive New York Times coverage that struck me the hardest, in this regard. Did anyone else read the feature story about the tug-of-war in Rockaway between the commitment to honor the dead and the desire to, somehow, move on? Here’s the opening of this emotional piece:

Just off the boardwalk, towheaded children bounced on a blow-up trampoline. Grown-ups bantered and showed off babies. An annual charity event was starting off summer on the Rockaway peninsula, a sliver of Queens jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. In the usual place of honor, between the Budweiser and the barbecue, stood photographs of grinning young men: all childhood friends, all dead.

The roguish blond one brandishing the beer mug — Charles F. X. Heeran — died on Sept. 11, 2001. One of 12 killed from his church alone, he worked at the bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald, high up in the World Trade Center. The one in shades and flak vest, Michael D. Glover, joined the Marines, spurred by Charlie’s death. In 2006, Lance Corporal Glover was killed by a sniper in Iraq.

Ten years after 9/11, a kind of memory industry hums along in Rockaway.

The peninsula suffered one of the nation’s most concentrated losses when the terrorist attacks scythed through generations of firefighters and Wall Street traders in the largely Irish-Catholic neighborhoods here. Fifty-nine people from Rockaway died; about 70 counting summer and former residents. One enclave, Breezy Point, lost 32 of its 5,000 people. A proportional hit to New York City would have taken 51,000 lives.

The location for this story is, literally, defined in terms of blood and religion.

Religious institutions and references dot the text. It’s impossible to write the story without them.

At the very end, the Times finally gives us a religious voice. I assumed, at this point, that readers would be offered some kind of context, some kind of summary statement — a thesis — the voice of a pastor in dialogue with one of the families at the heart of the drama.

Belle Harbor’s priest, Msgr. John Brown, has requested remembrances for a parish history. There has been little response. “The first question I got,” he said, “was, ‘Why?’ ”

In their no-frills way, the Heeran brothers are taking stock.

“I think about what my brother would be doing,” Sean said. “He’d be a multimillionaire on Wall Street. He’d be a father.”

Billy said: “I’m over his death. But not over the fact that he was killed by terrorists.”

Their whole family is going to ground zero on Sunday, for the first time in years. Billy hates seeing other bereaved parents there; Sean and his wife prefer visiting their brothers’ graves. (They had the grim luck of recovering remains.) “I think this’ll be the last one,” Billy said. “I just want Sept. 12 to be a new day.”

Small things still flatten Ellen Moran: catching her mother crying at her rosary; seeing pictures of her brother John’s boys. “I’m caught off guard more often than I would like today, that it’s still such a powerful shock,” she said. “That whole surrealness, it just hits you again — like, did that really happen?” …

And that’s about it. You’ve got Catholic schools, Catholic people, Catholic grief, a Catholic mother with a rosary. You know, all the usual colorful religious stuff. But where are the Catholic questions? You see, if you have the big questions, then you can listen to the voices who try to provide some answers.

Now, I know that it might be too much to add some factual, journalistic content about the fact that — painful as this is to admit — believers have suffered and died before, for centuries and centuries, while seeking answers to some of these big, eternal questions.

I know that not everyone finds comfort in the ancient answers, but many do. That tension is part of the story.

The Times didn’t write that tension into the Rockaway drama.

Maybe tomorrow.

IMAGE: From the Breezy Point 9/11 Memorial page at YellowEcho.com.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Kris D

    I missed the coverage today, since I was working. I was glad to hear that religious content was not banned. Psalm 46 is one of my favorites, & today, maybe it was more appropriate that a politician, not a cleric recited it. I wish more politicians would pay attention to the “Be still & know that I am God”.

  • Jerry

    There will simply be too much religion-beat material today and tomorrow to read and critique.

    I was struck by that sentence which mirrored what I’ve seen. I expected to see religion minimized in the coverage and at least for one day there were few horrible ghosts in the coverage. The quality of the coverage, on the other hand, varied as much as I expected.