Note from CM: I wrote this 5 years ago, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11/2001. I don’t have any easier time talking about it today.
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On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I ate breakfast with the pastor with whom I used to work as an associate. We met at our favorite restaurant, the one we used to joke about as a “second office” for people in our church. When I was on the church staff, it was not uncommon for me to be there at least three mornings a week.
Skies were bright and blue in central Indiana that day, as I got in my car to drive the fifteen miles back to my office. Realizing that I had forgotten to give my friend something, I took a slight detour and drove by the church. The radio was on and I heard sketchy reports about an aviation incident in New York City. The announcer said witnesses reported that they thought a light plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
Popping in and out of the church office to do my errand, I mentioned the strange report to the secretary and pastor, but didn’t think much about it. That changed as I got back in my car, drove south, and listened to further news bulletins about the unfolding events in Manhattan. By the time I reached my church, my associate had pulled the TV from the youth room into his office and was watching the horrific footage of the burning, collapsing towers. We spent the rest of the day in front of that TV, speechless.
We called a special prayer service in the sanctuary for that evening. Together, a few dozen of us watched President Bush’s address to the nation and then we prayed. As we were talking in the foyer later, one of my parishioners said, “Come here.” I followed him outside and he pointed to the heavens, the quiet, plane-less heavens, and said, “This may be the only time in our lives that we will see the skies empty like this.”
A couple in our church had a son in Manhattan. It was days before the phone system was repaired enough for them to talk with him and find out he was truly alright. Most of us were glued to the TV for days, watching the wall to wall coverage that preempted every scheduled show. I was scheduled to fly to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia on September 18, to visit our missionary friends, Andy and Damaris Zehner. On Sunday, a man in our congregation took me by the shoulders with tears in his eyes and said, “Please don’t go!” We all struggled to know how to talk about this with our children.
To be honest, there were moments when it all seemed like a media event. The fact that we saw and heard and interpreted everything through what was being broadcast on television, radio, in print and on the internet gave the tragedy a slight air of unreality. Most of us have seen enough bombs and staged catastrophes on TV and at the movies that it was hard to distinguish the spectacular images we were seeing on the screen from the latest blockbuster. I had to work hard to process the fact that this was real — my God! — this actually happened, and thousands of people literally died. This was not some movie about war, this was war, and it had come to our shores.
As that began to sink in, and then as the days went by, then the months, then the years, I have found myself unable to talk about September 11, 2001. I haven’t read books about it. I haven’t watched anniversary coverage. If footage from the terror attacks comes on some news report or documentary, I usually change the channel or leave the room. I don’t enter into discussions about it. I avoid thinking about it.
It is not that I was directly touched by 9/11. I did not know anyone personally who perished in New York, Pennsylvania, or Washington, D.C. I was not traumatized as an eyewitness or first responder. I have not yet had the privilege of visiting Ground Zero and surveying the scene.
But I am a human being. And as a human being in the image of God I value life. Valuing life, I detest all forms of cruelty and violence and wanton destruction of human life.
Let me say, I am not a wimp when it comes to handling emergencies, trauma, blood, and death. I deal with death almost every day as a hospice chaplain. I’ve watched many, many people take their last breaths. I am acquainted with grief, and though it touches me deeply, I am constituted so that I am able, somehow, to offer a kind of strength to those who are going through it.
However, I cannot handle intentional cruelty and savagery. I’ve been like this as long as I can remember. I recall reading Truman Capote’s novel, In Cold Blood, as a young person, for example, and I have never recovered from that. It still gives me nightmares. I have never taken pleasure in violent movies or shows that display human brutality and its graphic results. Over the past few years, I have actually forced myself to watch some of these shows, hoping to gain insight about why they appeal to so many of my fellow human beings.
Honestly, I still don’t get it.
So, it turns my guts inside out to think about being a captive passenger on one of those planes, a worker trapped in one of those buildings, a human being filled with such panic and desperation that the only option imaginable is to leap a thousand feet toward concrete to escape the inferno. To think of beautiful human bodies pulverized beneath the weight of imploding skyscrapers or mangled in the fuselage of a plane that plows into the ground at 580 miles per hour makes me literally want to vomit.
And then…to know that all this was no accident, but the result of depraved human design and intentional actions, sickens me beyond words.
“… the one who loves violence His soul hates.” (Psalm 11:4)
Me too. Deeply. With down in my stomach hatred.
Believe it or not, this is the first time that I have intentionally engaged in conversations specifically about 9/11 since the days immediately following the attacks. Ten years later.
And even now, I am doing it by sitting alone in my living room typing my thoughts. If you and I were face to face, I would struggle to speak the words. As it is, I can feel the tightness in my chest, the butterflies in my stomach. It’s hard to swallow. I’m fighting back tears. I’ll probably wake up a few times during the night with this on my mind.
Violence and cruelty sucks.
If I feel this way, 700+ miles away from Ground Zero, with no intimate connections to the event, ten years after it occurred, what must it be like, day in and day out, for those who were directly touched by the barbarity that day, who have had to live with wounds from the blunt force trauma caused by this inhumanity every moment since September 11, 2001?
I cannot wait for the day when these words come to pass:
“Violence will not be heard again in your land, nor devastation or destruction within your borders; but you will call your walls salvation, and your gates praise.”
• Isaiah 60:18
Even so, come quickly.