Five Years Later
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 17, 2006
As the sun broke through the clouds, and a light breeze blew, and the birds outside my window sang, I had gotten up from the desk to take a shower, and prepare to meet this absolutely perfect day of late summer on the cusp of fall.
Then, the telephone rang. It was Sarah at work at the AAA office in Needham, telling me that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. I went into the living room and turned on CNN, just as the second plane hit. “The world had changed,” we were told.
Had it really? In many ways, of course it had. Remember the fear that gripped us, as the reality of 9/11 seeped in: Where would these terrorists attack next? Were any of our communities safe? How could we protect ourselves, and our families? The sky above us was suddenly empty; all air traffic grounded. The skyline of our world was somehow less friendly, more foreboding, more ominous.
There were other feelings, as well, of course. Sadness, mostly. Do you remember the deep and pervasive sense of grief we all felt, as the ripples of pain seemed to radiate further and further from Ground Zero at the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon, or that field in Pennsylvania. We were numbed by the thought of so many thousands killed so senselessly-- family members, colleagues, friends, neighbors, associates—a list that grew more and more personal as details emerged each day—someone’s daughter; someone’s son; a fiancé; an expectant mother; visitors from overseas; a father; a brother—almost three thousand names, from 90 different nations—of every conceivable race and religion, every class, every occupation, every lifestyle, every nationality, every age—in this magnificent melting pot which is our America, which is our world.
There were other feelings five years ago, as well. There was anger, of course; justifiable anger at so heinous a deed; justifiable anger that didn’t want to rationalize or explain away or make excuses for such an awful, evil act or terrorism.
And there was patriotism: a deep surge of national loyalty as we Americans labored mightily to discern the forces that united us, in spite of all of our differences. Political enemies embraced. Flags flew everywhere. Walmart said it sold 116,000 American flags on September 11th, over 250,000 the day after, and even more the day after that.
Then, too, there was compassion, as we saw men and women and children waving American flags, and placing flowers in front of American consulates and embassies in cities around the world. People from Ottawa to Johannesburg-- from Moscow to Manila-- from Beijing to Paris—all shared in our national pain and grief, and their hearts went out to us.
The world certainly has changed since then. And the years since the fall of 2001 have stolen something from us:
But has that much really changed? Is our world really so different? Are we as a people (or simply, as people, as men and women) really so different?
Of course, some things changed. Statistics tell us that church attendance increased about 20% in the months following 9/11. (It has since returned to pre-9/11 levels.) Alcohol consumption increased by 25%-- and has pretty much stayed there.
We are now treated to the image of young children and elderly grandmothers having to take off their shoes at airports, lest they try to blow up an airplane. None of us will probably ever feel secure again when we fly. I bet that most of you probably feel the same way I do whenever I see an airplane flying overhead at a low altitude. It’s an instant flashback to 9/11 all over again.
Certainly, we live in a darker, more distrustful world than we did five years ago. Poll after poll shows that, in most nations of the world, it’s now the United States that is considered the greatest danger to world peace. We’ve come to take that for granted now—that, of course, everyone dislikes America. But that isn’t the way it “always” was. Pro-American sentiment showed an increase during the years of the 1990s; before the turn of the 21st century, it was in the midst of an upswing. In the year 2000, 83% of British citizens had a “favorable” opinion of the United States. Today, that figure is 56%.In France, it was 62% in 2000 (didn’t the French “always” hate us? Apparently not.) But today, the USA’s favorable rating in France is just 39%. Germany has fallen from 78% to 37%; Spain from 50 to 23; Indonesia from 75 (three-quarters of Indonesians had a favorable view of Americans in the year 2000) to 30; Turkey from 52% to 12%.
There is no mystery in why this has happened. This decline in how people look upon our nation is a direct result of the policies of our government in its conduct of foreign affairs—policies which rely entirely upon an arrogant unilateralism; which militarize every crisis; which rely upon bravado instead of imagination; which throws around its weight with the sensitivity of a schoolyard bully; which has replaced arrogance for diplomacy. If the only tool you have is a hammer, then pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail. So, in the eyes of the world, the United States has taken its hammer out all too often in international affairs.
I don’t hide my antipathy for those who currently lead our national government. Those of you who know me know I don’t keep my dislike of our present administration a secret. They will, I am convinced, be found sadly wanting by the verdict of history. They have squandered the goodwill of the world as surely as they squandered the budget surplus which was entrusted to them.
But blaming our leaders—blaming the “powers that be”-- for the sad state of the world—is not enough. Not as long as we, each one of us, have life and breath, and the power to choose for ourselves how best to live in the truth, as we discern it. It is not enough to blame others. We each need to ponder in our souls how we have responded to the changes which 9/11 wrought.
In the aftermath of September 11th, some of us had hoped that this bloodied ground might yet spring forth with flowers of freedom, and that out of the crucible of this horrendous experience, we might emerge a changed and more mature nation: changed in deeper ways than the normal comings and goings of politics and economics; changed in deeper, truly human—humane-- perhaps even spiritual—ways. We hoped that we might hear, beneath the drumbeat of patriotic fervor—and glimpse, beyond the red, white, and blue bunting that was everywhere and the countless waving flags—the true, deeper meaning and purpose of this great nation.
We had hoped, some of us, like Sam in The Lord of the Rings, that somehow, “everything sad would become untrue”. That, some of us believed, would be the only way that these almost-3000 deaths would not be in vain: if they launched forth a crusade not just to dismantle terrorism—not just to transform the world in our little image-- but to dismantle (as much as humanly possible) the terror, and the greed, and darkness in our own souls, and in the soul of the world.
It was, no doubt, an unrealistic hope to have had in the first place. But how far we have all fallen from that ideal. Perhaps another truth we need to glimpse is this: The deepest change does not take place in the grand setting of politics, but in each and every individual human heart. Unless we have changed our own hearts—and the actions we take that emanate from there—we have no real right to stand in judgment of others.
September 11th was, at its base, a profoundly human tragedy. We truly sense the havoc that this tragedy has wrought, not in any philosophical or political or ideological manner, but in the simple loss of each of those individual human lives—mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughter, lovers and friends:
Multiply each of these individual human tragedies by close to 3000—then by another 3000 of our countrymen and countrywomen killed in Afghanistan and Iraq—and by the thousands and thousands of others killed-- and we sense the true magnitude of this loss. Each of those beings a manifestation of an infinite power to touch and be touch, to love, to create. Each a story all its own. Each a precious human song.
Stilled too soon. Suddenly halted.
So much power, strength, courage, love, faith, hope— all, in a flash, reduced to dust and ashes.
So it is that we, five years later, still stand back and gape—in silence, and in awe, and in grief—at a void that can never be filled; at an emptiness in our internal skylines which ought never be filled in.
May we guard that emptiness, and keep that space in our souls open. May we not constantly seek to sill it up with more business as usual, or with this or that new crusade against this or that (real or imagined) enemy.
In that emptiness inside of us, there may yet lie space for creative, healing energy to flow; in that emptiness, there lies the space for new creations to arise; new memories to take shape and form, and bless our lives with fires of joy as great as the sadness and disappointment and fear we now feel.
September 11th was, at its base, a profoundly human tragedy. So may our well-reasoned response to the legacy of September 11th be individual and human and humane as well. May we take some time to contemplate, and remember, and discern how we will now—before it really is too late-- echo back the songs of those too soon taken from us.
May we discern, too, how to rebuild those twin towers of love and justice within our hearts. And how to join with others as conspirators—not for more terror or even for revenge or retribution-- but as bold conspirators of the light: comrades and friends dedicated to furthering works of peace and love and mercy, right where we are, right here in this little spot of God’s good Earth.
For this is how we pay our debt to those who have gone before: By making our lives a song of love and peace. This is how we remember this sad and melancholy anniversary just past, and transform it at long last: by keeping faith with one another and tending with all our hearts the sacred, hopeful soil of the Tree of Life.