It has been hard to listen to the barrage of radio and television interviews related to 9/11, to hear people talk about where they were on that day. On one level, the attacks happened to all of us – but on another they happened more so to the people who were actually there: those who witnessed the actual attacks; those who were killed or injured, including many brave and selfless first responders; those who helped with the grizzly search for survivors, many of whom gave their lives in the process; and many who have lost their health and their livelihood.
I hesitate to share about my sense of the day, removed as it was. In my home in California, I was watching the morning news when Katie Couric cut to a view of the Towers with one building on fire; she was speculating that there had been an explosion when the second plane hit. Feeling shocked out of a sense of security by this attack on our soil, I left for work where I had a meeting with the head of a mental health lockdown unit. I waited for my appointment in the dayroom, watching several patients silently transfixed in front of a large-screen television that showed the Towers engulfed in flames and then collapsing. Someone should change the channel, I thought, but was unable to do anything about it. These patients, who were fighting their own hellish battles, probably had greater capacity for taking in this scene of chaos, destruction and loss than the rest of us.
Three of my colleagues should have been killed and weren’t, which no doubt left them with a sense of immense relief and gratitude but also with a lingering sense of “survivors guilt.” One was a benefactor who was to meet his financial manager in the Towers at 9 a.m., but after a testy phone conversation decided to skip out on the appointment. Two others – both hospital executives — had been scheduled on the Boston and D.C. flights; one overslept and missed her plane by a narrow margin and another finished a business meeting early and so rescheduled his flight the day before.
Some things have shifted in this country because of 9/11, while some have remained the same. A good deal of energy has been channeled into a renewed sense of patriotism, sometimes warping into a competitiveness that puts U.S. Americans at odds with much of the world. Perhaps one of the hardest things about remembering 9/11 is the pull to acknowledge that place within us that such a tragedy touches – that deeply seated sense of vulnerability where we know beyond any doubt that we are not in control, where anything is possible, where the unthinkable can happen.
So we scramble to build walls, screen travelers and put the best technological and scientific minds to work protecting us. We demand that our leaders make us safe no matter what the cost. We long for a sense of security that will shield us from the next unthinkable happening. We long for a sense of safety, no matter what the price to us or for our neighbor.
A few years ago, my father included an eloquent statement in a ruling in a case in which a corporation attempted, without success, to halt a protest by requiring unwarranted screening of participants. “We cannot simply suspend or restrict civil liberties until the War on Terror is over, because the War on Terror is unlikely ever to be truly over,” he wrote. “Sept. 11, 2001, already a day of immeasurable tragedy, cannot be the day liberty perished in this country.”
We must make peace with our inescapable vulnerability if we are to make peace with ourselves, with our neighbor and with our God. We must make peace if we are to be truly free.
(Photo taken on retreat at Holy Cross Monastery.)