Sunday, September 11, 2011

After Ten Years: Hatred and Death, or The Hint of a Possibility

I was running around, gathering materials and trying not to be late for class. It was just another ordinary morning for a busy college professor. Did I have my coffee with me. Can't remember. I remember seeing the water fountain. Then I passed by my brother's office and poked my head in.

"Did you hear about this?" he asked with a look of some concern and also curiosity at the unusual news. "An airplane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers." The first picture that came into my mind was a small private plane. My brother was reading it on the internet. "The building is on fire."

Oh my, I thought. This is a real crisis.

Then, suddenly, there was that weird moment when the whole thing revealed itself to our minds. We had thought we had a grasp on the thing--some strange pilot error (or something) had resulted in an unusual and costly tragedy; terrible yes, but these things do happen from time to time in our world.

But then came the voice of my brother from his office: "What? Another plane has just crashed into the second  tower!" Suddenly, all the "normal" explanations disappeared from my mind. The whole thing began to spin beyond mental and imaginative conception. Only one thing was clear: this was a sinister and deliberate act.

As I made my way to the classroom, other people were filling in details. Commercial passenger planes. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon. How? Who was behind it? How did they do it? What did they want? WHO OR WHAT WAS THE NEXT TARGET?

By the time I arrived (quite late, but no one cared at this point--by now we weren't even sure there was going to be a school day), one of my students had some concrete information. Terrorists from some Islamic faction had hijacked the planes and flown them directly into the buildings. Oh no. Oh no. This was beyond the scope of the immediate circumstances. It was violence perpetrated in God's name. The fundamental energy of human being--the movement toward transcendence--had been twisted and deformed into a horrible and fearfully powerful spiral of destruction.

I gathered my class into the classroom and we prayed.

We decided to hold a normal school day. The reasoning was that the terrorists wanted us to be afraid, and so we should not satisfy them by changing our schedule and thus demonstrating that they had power over us. But few people had a mind for classes. The perpetrators were exercising power, and it was compelling. It almost called for our attention.

Later, Eileen brought the children to a community center where many of us gathered to watch in horror as the towers crumbled to the ground. John Paul was only 4, Agnese 2, and Lucia 1. They were too small to understand. I was grateful for that.

What we were looking at was more than a political act. It was a human event. Whatever the subjective intentions of its perpetrators, it was--objectively--an act of unambiguous violence against innocent human beings. Anyone unblinded by prejudice and with a remnant of moral sensibility recognized that what they were witnessing was something evil. The whole world watched the evil unfold. Hatred and death.

Some anecdotes were related. One was particularly striking: people were jumping out of windows to escape the inferno. A man and a woman jumped from the 82 floor, holding hands. Holding hands.

This is the image that motivated a concise reflection on the challenge that 9/11 posed to those who witnessed it. To those of us who remained. Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete expressed it in these words in a subsequent interview with the program "Nightline":

To me, that image is an inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what Sept. 11 was all about. The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It's a choice. It's the choice of Sept. 11.

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