Of course, it’s far from over, but it has been a week like no other in the memory of anyone who wasn’t old enough to be aware of what happened in November, 1963. Yes, our children will remember this week. They will measure their experience by where they were and what they felt when they first saw the towers fall, and our nation shaken, but still standing.
I want to remember the day. So I will write it for myself.
At 10:15 a.m., I was walking to the post office to get my mail, just two blocks from my home, when two of my co-workers pulled up and began to tell me what happened. I couldn’t picture the reality, the loss, the carnage, but I simply tried to conceptualize what this meant. I would have to tell the students at our school what had occurred. Plans would have to be made for finding out if any of our students, drawn from all over the world, including New York and D.C., had any connections to the WTC or the Pentagon. (As it turned out, we had one student with a relative in the WTC. One of our recent graduates was two corridors down from the Pentagon explosion, and e-mailed us a touching letter later in the week.)
It seems to be my place here at our school to bring the bad news to our students and staff, and on those days I have always felt the presence of the Spirit, giving me the right words and a good heart. This day I felt the same, but I felt something else: the weight of history. Our nation had been attacked in a way reminiscent of Pearl Harbor. As that event galvanized a generation and a country, I had a brooding sense that this tragedy marked the beginning of a certain inevitable sea change: cultural, political, financial, social, spiritual. It was a day that would be driven into our consciousness by the force of the events and the weight of their consequences and implications.
Our school gathers each day for worship, and I decided to have as much of a normal chapel service as possible, since events were still unfolding and it was unclear what was actually happening. Our scheduled speaker had no idea what was going on, and when I told him to cut it to ten minutes and drop any jokes, he didn’t understand, but he spoke on the twenty-third Psalm. The valley of the shadow of death seemed very near and, for a moment, the Good Shepherd seemed very far away. But the ancient words of assurance and guidance gathered us up and held us for those moments in a power far exceeding the words themselves, and the unknown was less frightening.
Watching the explosions on television, I was struck with how much they resembled Hollywood’s illusions of the apocalypse. It looked like an out-take from Independence Day. Except I was watching people die. More than five thousand. Over and over again. This was, I thought, the collision of our innocence, our entertainment and fantasies, with the cruel and unforgiving realities of the world we glibly tune into and out of every evening. But here was something so horrendous that to go back to the Soap Opera channel or QVC seemed blasphemy. Even MTV suddenly began broadcasting Dan Rather. (Liberal patriotism. So little. So late, but appropriate.)
Later in the day, we called a special assembly and our school president told our students, in detail, what was going on. There were tears of concern and fear, and tears of sympathy with strangers. Some wept because their families were traveling or they had relatives in the affected areas. Some wept for our army reserve faculty members, who we expect to leave us in the near future. Others wept because they were replaying their own private and unknown moments of terror and helplessness. Several of our students lived through the Liberian civil war and one of our students came from Bosnia, where he defended his family while yet a boy himself. These students knew the feeling of being vulnerable. Many of us wanted to weep, but were afraid to show our vulnerability. It was easier to give a hug than to ask for one.
I looked for my children. They would only understand the seriousness of these events by watching adults who understood them better. My sixteen year old daughter, so much like me emotionally, took in far more than she showed. My thirteen year old son, with his sensitivity like his mother, seemed amazed. Their innocence was being taken away before their very eyes and they did not know it. Only when they look at the names of their friends and teachers and neighbors, taken in the first war of the twenty-first century, will they genuinely understand the tragedy of 9-11-01. When their children ask how the world used to be, they will tell them of this day, this marker in steel and glass and blood.
Looking at my children, I realized that children all over America had lost fathers and mothers unexpectedly. Their lives forever altered by the accumulated policy decisions of leaders here and elsewhere that had birthed such hatred of our country that only an invasion of hell itself could provide an outlet. We act as if politics is a hobby of the detached, having nothing to do with the real world, yet it makes widows and orphans. Surely some of the planes had children on the passenger lists, perhaps dying with their parents or teachers. Do terrorists really rejoice believing that feeding our children to the monster of their anger somehow accomplishes a greater good? Such insanity can not be looked at for long without the righteous desire to wipe it cleanly and finally from the blackboard of history.
I brought my classes into my office and let them watch the news coverage all afternoon. They watched in silence, with only a few acknowledgments of the horror. In nearly every class were young men enlisting in the military. Now that promise of college money seemed to fade next to the prospect of going to war in a country you couldn’t find on a map, against an enemy you couldn’t name or find. The yearning to know “who did it?” was tangible among my students, but I couldn’t tell them any more than the name of man about who none of us really knew anything, and who surely could not be the sole perpetrator of these acts. Americans need an enemy on which to focus their anger, but these events did not provide Japanese or Germans or Iraqis, only shadowy figures with names we could not pronounce and motives we could not understand. Why do those who hate us not stand and say so? Such is the nature of this evil, that it has no pride, only appetite.
At home that afternoon, I became angry. Such a scenario for disaster had been making the rounds for years in scripts and novels, and now it burst out of the pages of pulp fiction into the real world. The cumulative stupidity of it all sickens me. Our ridiculous courting of Arafat. The false promises of retribution. The flippant attitude towards airport and airplane security. The Kafkaesque reinvention of the military into “peacekeepers.” The desertion of American spine exemplified in the abandonment of Desert Storm and the ridiculous posturing of Clinton’s limp foreign policy. (Please, please, PLEASE don’t let the media follow him on his certain “grief tour.” The thought of this amoral oaf hugging the families of victims and spouting inane platitudes to a grateful press when his dereliction of leadership weakened us to this point is simply more than I can bear.)
Driving home I stopped at our community market. There were almost thirty cars lined up in a gas panic. Ignorant Americans, living on rumors, believing the refineries would be shut down and they might not make it to the lake or to the doctor or to church. I found myself amused, then saddened. We must not panic. We must not live on rumors, or we will not be strong. It is patience and perseverance, not ignorance and panic, that will serve us in the days ahead.
That evening, the President seemed angry, yet it was anger tempered with the decency, sensitivity and emotion that anyone can see in President Bush. He is the kind of man we need at the helm right now. If our young men and women must go fight, this is the man who I want to say the word. I think everyone respected him more after his tuesday night speech, because he was clear. If you harbor this, finance this or cooperate in this, you will pay. I believe I was not alone in tending to believe this was not posturing, but prediction. I do not want the calculating ambition of Al Gore or the legacy-chasing of Bill Clinton. I want Barbara and George’s oldest boy, who knows how to cry, who believes in Jesus, who became a sober man for the sake of others and who embraces the virtue of humility. I trust his anger because it is not distorted by arrogance, but seasoned with humanity.
Later, as I lay in bed, listening to the radio reports late into the night, I wondered if, when my son is 18, this will still be going on? Will he fear the draft as I did at eighteen? Will I hear the names of our students called out in mourning, gone to war and never returning? Would I pay $5 a gallon for gas? And would I care? How were my nephew John and his new wife Alicia, living and working in Manhattan? Were there really people alive under all that rubble? So many police and firemen and rescue workers dead. What did it feel like to die? What would I say if I had a thirty-second phone call before dying? Was it all a dream? Would sleep bring any relief? Or would it bring nightmares of worse things to come? Eventually, sleep triumphed and my questions surrendered.
Our high school principal teaches our students to say “This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” We say it so much, it has sometimes become unconscious and empty of its fundamental meaning. Each day is a gift of a God, a day that need not exist, but does exist because God wills it so. And each day contains its share of our own responses. To do good, to do evil, to do nothing. Or to praise God for the gift of a day and the life to enjoy it. For five thousand, it was their last day. They flew in perfectly blue skies, on the most beautiful day of an approaching fall, and they died. Leaving me to live this day and others as I choose. As we choose together.
This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice. And be glad in it.