Saturday, September 11, 2021

Twenty Years After the Towers Fell

It has been two decades since the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 that left such a terrible mark on the beginning of the 21st century for the USA and the whole world. We commemorate this anniversary with prayer and sorrow, and consolation and help for those who continue to suffer losses that cannot be forgotten.

"9-11" still shocks and saddens me in some particular personal ways. I know people who lost loved ones on that day, as well as relatives and friends who were among the first responders and who then continued to respond in the days and weeks that followed. Also, New York City was my "home town." Although we moved when I was 9 years old, I remember the city very well and returned frequently. I spent a lot of time there in my youth, and it always felt like "home." My ancestors came from Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to live and work in this city and built the foundations of our family in the USA.

I haven't been back to New York in recent years, but it was one of the "old stomping grounds" of my youth, and it is full of memories.

The person in the picture is me (yes, it is really me—stop laughing!) in the summer of 1983, on the Staten Island Ferry gesturing to the barely visible Manhattan skyline in the foggy distance. It's not just the picture quality here; I recall that it was this sort of cloudy day, though I can't recall who took the picture. Needless to say, we had no selfies back then.

Can you see the two exceptionally tall buildings through the mist, standing far above the others? I remember when those "Twin Towers" opened ten years earlier, in 1973, not long after our family moved from our native city to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For a long time, they were just part of the landscape of New York.

During the course of many visits, I went up to the top and marveled at the amazing views. (It was fun to take visiting Europeans up there; in fact it's fun just taking them to New York, which is not like anything they've ever seen except in the movies). I remember hanging around various parts of the buildings day and night. I walked right past them, barely noticing them as I hurried somewhere else. I saw them from many angles of the Manhattan skyline. I saw them from airplane windows....

It seemed like they would just be there forever. Like mountains.

The nightmare that took place 20 years ago was inconceivable for a large part of my life. We in the First World at the end of the twentieth century grew up with images and/or fears of nuclear war, totalitarian dictatorships, systematic genocide, and the destruction of entire nations. We also knew the peculiar anxiety (which still exists today, and has expanded to other realms of life) of living with ever-increasingly complex and opaque political bureaucracies and the ever-expanding power of technologically sophisticated weapons capable of wiping out millions of people by putting into action protocols that nobody really understood. It seemed almost that the world could be destroyed "by accident," and that political violence in general was becoming something anonymous.

Of course we also knew about "local wars" in the global South. Thanks to the ingenious simplicity and the cheap but durable, portable, and effective AK-47, guerrilla warfare had been raised to a whole new level of destructiveness. Still, those of us who grew up in the First World during the Cold War era tended also to view these wars in large, abstract terms. Great ideologies were supposedly enacting geopolitical strategies through "proxy wars" all over the world. The local revolutionaries and resistance fighters seemed to us (with a few notable exceptions) "faceless" instruments in the global power struggle, and only historical hindsight has begun to allow us in the West to see the immense complexity of human motivations, local rivalries, ethnic conflicts, and sometimes ancient grievances that were behind the allegiances in these local wars. 

Indeed, as the millennium dawned, many of us in rich countries - gaping in awe at our vast technologically sophisticated arsenals and having just lived through a decade in which the Great Enemy (Soviet Communism) had been vanquished, had grown "a bit distant" in our sensibilities regarding the true sources of political violence in this world. Perhaps some of us had also grown distant from another essential, irreplaceable factor in the struggle against evil: our own courage

But that all changed on September 11, 2001. There had of course been terrorist attacks in recent years, but nothing remotely on this scale. Yet it was a group of young men armed with nothing but box cutters, a few flying lessons, and the fury of a suicidal fanaticism, a boundless rage and resentment, and a perversion of their religious sense: the deepest and most implacable human drive that searches for the ultimate meaning of life was twisted by fantasies and nihilism into a violent project to bring down the two tallest buildings in the world into a raging fire of death.

This blasphemous and inhuman horror, along with the personal catastrophes and the countless instances of heroism that followed, proved once again a very old truth.

It proved that the greatest power in the world — for violence and destruction or for valor and courage and solidarity — remains the human heart with its designs, its choices for good or evil, and the ever-renewed gift and vocation that draws the human heart to love and to hope and to begin again.