Remembering September 11th
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 15, 2002
As our church bells rang out over Stoughton Square at 8:46 AM last Wednesday—September 11th—the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on our nation—I noticed, seemingly how little had changed.
I stood alone on the front steps of our church, alone and unnoticed. Whether anyone heeded the bell’s message or not, I couldn’t tell. I can’t be sure how many heard them really. The noise of traffic in the square is immense at times, especially at rush hour—especially, in seems in the minutes between eight o’clock and nine in the morning.
Perhaps a few cars slowed down as the bells pealed forth—or as the peals changed into music—first “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” then “America the Beautiful”, followed by several other patriotic hymns.
There may have been a few more who stopped to listen, or who strode to where they were going a little more slowly, or who hummed along.
But the overriding sense I had, as I stood on the steps overlooking Stoughton Square on this September 11th morn was of “business as usual”. Cars rushed to and fro; horns blared; people ran to make the train; the crowd streamed in and out of the donut shop; a large sixteen-wheeler struggled to negotiate the turn from Washington onto Pleasant against traffic.
Business went on as usual, with barely a pause. Away from the places most directly affected—Ground Zero in New York, the Pentagon, the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania where United flight 93 went down-- the world largely did not stand quietly to remember. The noise did not die down; the fret and fever of the day did not abate; rather, the world threw itself into its business, hardly missing a beat.
And I couldn’t decide then—and I don’t think I still know now—whether that was a good thing, or a bad thing.
It’s probably a good thing that we live in a nation strong enough to go on after such a horrendous attack. America was bloodied, but most certainly not beaten. Our economy stumbled, but was not derailed. Within a month of the September 11th attacks, the story was off the front pages of some newspapers. Life (seemingly) had moved on to other matters.
Everything was changed. But nothing was changed.
Oh, some things changed, of course. Americans will probably never feel as secure again when flying on airplanes. There are now long lines for check in at all American airports. I am sure that people who live or work in the upper stories of all buildings must feel a certain strangeness now on a regular basis. Oftentimes, for me, seeing an airplane flying overhead at a low altitude brings flashbacks to that awful day last September.
Other things have changed, too: We now have “anti-terrorist” briefings and warnings of “imminent attacks” from the Attorney General. Days are color-coded according to the danger which the powers that be perceive in them. A new government bureau, with the ominous, almost Orwellian title, “Department of Homeland Security”, has been formed.
In the meantime, the terrorist network in Central Asia, which our troops fought so valiantly to dismantle, still seems to be around. In spite of the noble intentions of the Karzai government in Kabul, Afghanistan teeters never more than a half-step from anarchy. In spite of all the President’s bravado and conviction in the days after September 11th, Osama Bin Laden still seems to be alive, still mocking the West, and still singing the praises of his deranged bunch of henchmen. And, eleven years after the Gulf War, we are as fixated as ever on the machinations of that mean and cowardly despot in Iraq, Saddam Hussein.
Much has changed, much hasn’t. Such is history’s rhythm, I suppose, and perhaps a year is too short a time to judge the overall significance of even an event as momentous as September 11th. Certainly, the events of last September altered many things on the political landscape, but I don’t think we can know yet whether these changes have made us better—or freer—or safer as a nation and a people. Only the long sweep of history can tell us that. A year is just not long enough.
A year ago, of course, in our pain and sadness, 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 nation—and a changed world: changed in deeper ways that 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 hoped, some of us, that September 11th could be a great wake up call for America to arise from its pleasure-sated sleep of self-indulgence and mindless-consumption: to awaken to a new place in the world as its suffering servant—an America in service to the world, in the company of men and women of goodwill everywhere, striving, at last, as one people: to bind up the broken, to comfort the afflicted, to do works of justice.
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, 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.
How far we have all fallen from that ideal. It was, no doubt, an unrealistic expectation to have had in the first place. Perhaps another lesson we have learned from all of this is that the deepest change does not take place in the grand setting of politics, but in each and every individual human heart.
As much as we might mourn for our nation on September 11th, it is more for those individual men and women-- overwhelmingly Americans, but citizens, too, of the whole world—remember, as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan reminds us, 90 different nations lost sons and daughters in the September 11th attacks—that we truly mourn. It is them we remember. It is in their individual stories—their precious human stories—that our deepest feelings abide.
As Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe has written: “Take any day of the New York Times ‘Portraits of Grief’ series which gave vignettes of the victims… You will find someone with aspirations, hobbies, humor, skills, material passions, and spiritualities akin to your own, someone who in your own mind is as innocent as you are… Somewhere in that building, you could find someone close to your heart, close enough to chill your spine in imagining yourself in their place. We will be angry forever because a man in a beard and his followers buried their lives in impenetrable dust.”
Nothing made the reality of the tragedy of September 11th any more real for me than reading in Rolling Stone magazine about the young woman who worked at the World Trade Center and was a dedicated fan of the rock group Pink Floyd. I began to weep when I read that they played Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”—her favorite song (and one of mine)-- at her funeral.
It is in the simplest details of life that we are touched most deeply. That’s why I think that Bruce Springsteen’s song “You’re Missing”, which we shared earlier, is such a powerful testament to these times. 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 a single human life—a father, a husband, a lover, a son:
Multiply each of these individual human tragedies by close to 3000, and we sense the true magnitude of this loss. Three thousand people might not seem like so many when we consider it in the context of the millions in New York City, or the hundreds of millions in the United States, or the billions in our world. They’re just a few more raindrops in an endless sea.
But when we think of each individual human story—the power and the grace, the spirit, the joy and tragedy that each manifests, that each represents—then we realize how far and wide those arcs of sadness created by those 3000 raindrops in that once-calm sea truly is. Each being is 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, a year 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.
Keep that space open. Don’t sill it up with more business as usual, or with this or that new crusade against this or that (real or imagined) enemy.
For in that emptiness, there lies the space for creative energy to flow;
In a way, it was probably good that the traffic continued to flow all about throughout that whole September 11th morning one year later. For it proved again the ineffable truth that life goes on. And while any of our years upon this earth may be short or long, and our individual leaves fall to the ground in their due time, the Great Tree which is Life abides forever, nourished in the memory that we have once been part of it.
But I wish there had more time this September 11th for silence, too. And contemplation. And remembering.
And for discerning how to phrase our song—and live our lives—to echo back the songs of those too soon taken from us.
And for discerning 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 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.
And this is how we atone for these lives taken too soon: By singing that song in fullness of our voices.
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.