Dark Thoughts on 9/11

by Michael Sean Winters

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Earlier this summer, when conducting interviews for an article about 9/11, I realized that no matter how I began the interviews, no matter what question I asked, the first thing everyone did was tell me exactly what they had been doing that morning, who told them the news, where they watched the unfolding horror and with whom. 9/11, the most public act of hatred in our times, was experienced in a deeply personal way.

Yesterday, at the various services of commemoration, there was much talk of resilience. This talk is not misplaced but neither is it the whole story. For me, that day remains a dark day with mostly dark lessons, and so do the ten years since. Here are those memories and those lessons.

First, attacks of 9/11 were not a tragedy, not an event, nor any other euphemism. They were attacks, mass murder, radical evil. We are called, in yesterday’s Gospel, to forgive. But, we are not called to negotiate. There is no adjustment of policy appropriate to dealing with the terrorists who perpetrated those acts of terror or who continue to nurse the religio-fascist fantasies that inspired them. I fear that too many of my fellow Americans, exhibiting one of our most obvious national characteristics, a sunny optimism, do not realize that in dealing with this latest outbreak of radical evil, it is only, say, 1938 and we should be watchful against those politicians, who now reside in both parties, who would assent to a crime similar to that perpetrated at Munich.

Second, this act was done in the name of God, which only makes its evil the more obvious and the more radical. There is nothing distinct about the Islamic faith that lends itself to peculiarly violent expressions. “Pogrom” in not an Arabic word and our Christian forbears mounted the Crusades. That is to say, all religions, precisely because of their power over the human soul, have a capacity for perpetrating the greatest of evils, and that must power must serve as a constant invitation to humility by those who consider themselves religious. People who believe they are inspired by God are dangerous people: If they are good, like Dorothy Day or Thomas More, they unsettle all the myths of a culture. If they are evil, they are the most nefarious of terrorists.

Third, fear is such a powerful, and crippling, emotion and, when it is combined with power, its effects are always more evil. The members of the New York Fire Department who rushed into the burning buildings overcame their fears. Ordinary citizens, who continued about their business, did not succumb to terror. That day, I was working at the restaurant I managed, and we remained open which was not the stuff of heroism, but it was the stuff of resistance to terror. On the other hand, some of our politicians exploited Americans’ fears in the most shameful of ways. Dick Cheney exploited that fear to mount the Iraq War and to turn America into a country that commits torture. In Georgia, Saxby Chambliss’s campaign accused Sen. Max Cleland, a man who had lost both legs and one arm fighting for his country, of complicity with the terrorists in what remains the most despicable campaign ad in recent history. Chambliss won, but I would refuse to shake his hand.

Fourth, I remember the crowds in Nablus cheering the attacks. I have never heard appeals on behalf of the Palestinian people in the same way since. In Tel Aviv, there were tears. My sense of kinship with the Israeli people, which was robust to begin with, became yet more thorough-going.

Fifth, since the Second Vatican Council, inter-religious dialogue has been embraced by the Catholic Church as a positive good, but in the wake of 9/11 we understand it to be an imperative task. Al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims than Christians in its reign of doom and besmirched a religion we know so little about. There is no work more urgent for the great Abrahamic faiths than to engage in dialogue, even if nothing issues from that dialogue beyond acquaintance. It is difficult to malign, still more to kill, someone with whom you had breakfast.

Sixth, Augustine was right: Evil is an absence. The designers of the Ground Zero memorial understood this too. Their memorial, which was dedicated yesterday, is called “Reflecting Absence” and consists of two large foot prints where the twin towers once stood, two empty holes in the ground, lined by waterfalls. It is haunting in its beautiful emptiness. You realize, as I did a few weeks after 9/11 when I first drove up to New York after the attacks, that you are looking for something that is no longer there. This realization also points a way forward, a way that is decent and brave. As Leon Wieseltier said in words I quoted Saturday, “The obscenities of September 11, 2001 exposed the difference between builders and destroyers. We are builders.” The way to combat evil is to build a civilization of love that leaves no explanatory room for the destroyers and their religiously twisted interpretation of humanity and its moral dignity.

Yesterday, I went to Mass. Cardinal McCarrick celebrated the noon Mass at the National Shrine as he did on the day of the attacks. Where else can a Catholic go in the face of evil but to Mass? I did not leave with answers for my dark thoughts. I still wonder how to respond, as a human and as a Christian, to the evil visited upon our nation that September morning. But, I do know this: In the face of evil, we must, on our knees, in our fear and our bereavement and our darkest thoughts, turn to Jesus and, confused though we may be about how to respond, and considering all the alternatives, we must say with Peter, “Lord, to whom would we go?” My dark thoughts are still with me, but they are no longer entirely mine. I wait for my answers with all the other chaplains at the empty tomb, knowing that the answer to our human drama is not a “what” but a “who,” and that when we call Him the “Prince of Peace” we have said something truly marvelous.

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