On September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers burned and fell, an ancient prayer rattled in my head. The words fumbled around as background music as I evacuated my office near the United Nations headquarters and miraculously located my newlywed husband as he was in transit to New York City.
The internet was down so I could not google the verses. But the fragmented version of it lingering in my anxiety-ridden brain gave me direction and some measure of peace.
Not until a vigil the next day at Union Square, just steps from Ground Zero, did I find the poem beckoning to me from a placard among a growing memorial of candles, flowers, prayers, laments and pictures of loved ones not yet located.
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith…
People who do not live in New York City might think of it as a chaotic place. But on that day, there was a remarkable cohesion. On that beautiful week of bright blue skies, in one of the most diverse communities on the globe, a grieving city of immigrants stood shoulder to shoulder in a downtown park certain that our future lay in unity, not division. Even the smell of burning metal and the ashes in the air falling on our shoulders could not dissuade us from the idea that together we could sow love, not hatred.
In the weeks following the attacks, Mayor Giuliani and President George W. Bush united in a call for religious tolerance as they stood together in the rubble at Ground Zero.
Despite these initial declarations of unity, our leaders would soon start a march to war against Iraq — which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks — and the world’s attention would turn to preventing this moral catastrophe.Soon, as the Presbyterian Church (USA) representative to the United Nations, I stood in a UN Assembly hall watching Secretary of State Colin Powell present a case for war in Iraq. Diplomats’ eyes rolled at the so-called evidence of weapons of mass destruction. I observed subsequent press conferences of UN members (sparsely attended by reporters) and saw full well that no one found the presentation believable even as the U.S. press described Powell’s presentation as a success.
I am reminded on this day that the seeds of a Trump presidency — with all its deceit, corruption and failure to respect basic human rights — lay in this moment and others like it. We embraced division rather than the unity for which St. Francis would have us strive. A Republican White House told a massive lie in plain sight — national leaders knew that Saddam Hussein (tyrant though he was) had nothing at all to do with the Al Qaeda-led attacks. We were told that removing Saddam from office would stabilize the region despite expert advice. The post-war instability instead gave us ISIS. Mainstream press like the New York Times failed to provide accurate coverage about going to war. Congress failed to heed the largest one-day global protest in history. Both Republicans and Democrats failed to vote against a war that they knew had nothing at all to do with making us more safe. Instead, the war boosted elite economic interests in oil reserves and lucrative private military contracts for administration officials with ties to companies like Haliburton.
Today, former Mayor Giuliani as President Trump’s lawyer deals in conspiracy theories to fan the flames of Islamophobia. And the Republican Party embraces a president who imposes bans on Muslim refugees and fans white supremacist conspiracy theories.
There is much to denounce in the present, but perhaps we should scrutinize even more the sins of our past and consider how a coalition of the wise can rebuild this nation when Trump is gone. It took many of us to create this mess, and it will still be here when he is gone.
I still believe that the majority of this nation stands with the diverse and grieving populace I saw that day in Union Square. I still pray the words of St Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.” If we scrutinize our past, perhaps we can ensure those Union Square dreams might become more than an aspiration. May it become our reality.