September 11, 2001. I was in Cleveland because I had been asked to speak at the funeral of a good friend that afternoon. I was staying with friends and I left their home a few minutes before 9 a.m. to meet another friend for coffee. It was a cool crisp, late summer day with azure blue skies–it was like this all over the northeast. I had the local public radio station on when the first reports of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center Towers came on. As I remember, at first they thought it was simply a small plane. No one could conceive of crashing a commercial jet liner into a building. That is, no one until the second hit and was captured on numerous media.
My friend and I talked in fits and starts between watching the coverage and then witnessing the sickening fall of first one tower, then a second. We knew this couldn’t be good, especially for those in the floors above the crash, or anyone else still in those buildings. The stories of tragedy and heroism only came later, as did news of the crash into the Pentagon, and Flight 93 that crashed in PA (which probably made a U-turn right over our heads in Cleveland).
I had some time to still wait before the funeral and so I did what millions of others did that day–call home. All we could do is share our mutual disbelief at the horror unfolding before our eyes–replayed again and again during those days. All we could do is assure each other of our love, clinging to that in the midst of a flood of emotions and confusion. I wanted so bad to be home.
When I arrived at the funeral for my friend, I saw the friends I had stayed with and our first words to each other was about how the world had changed since we had had breakfast together. Little did we know yet of how much would change. But for that space of time, I had to set it aside to pay tribute to my friend, and my friend’s faith in the face of his own death, conscious at the same time of the thousands of others who had very little time that morning to confront those same realities.
As I reflect today, I remember the courage and tragedy of that day–of passengers on Flight 93, of first responders who gave their lives to rescue others, of phone calls from planes and buildings to speak of love and to say good-bye. I also think of the courage and tragedy of the years since. I think particularly of so many young men and women who responded to our country’s call to put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan or supported efforts in these countries. Some only came home in caskets while others returned bearing physical and mental wounds from their service. We must remember them and continue to see that they receive all the support and care they need, as far as it is humanly possible, to bring healing.
I also think of what we’ve lost as a nation. We’ve sacrificed privacy for protection as we’ve become a heavily surveilled land. We’ve sacrificed investment in our infrastructure, the education of our citizens, and cutting edge research in non-defense related areas to meet real or perceived threats in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the insurgencies we’ve faced seem like hydra-headed monsters–cut off the al-Qaeda threat only for ISIS to arise. We’ve mortgaged our children’s future to pay for the safety and defense of our place in the world.
What I hope we have learned and gained as a nation is a greater sense of that place and our responsibilities in the world, and I hope we find that humbling, and not exalting. All our military and economic power will not make the world behave and act as we wish–it may only engender greater hate and resentment. All our dependence upon our government to protect us has not made us a freer people. I don’t think we can wave a magic wand and make it better–that is also an American myth that I think we would do well to question. I don’t think we can walk away from the challenges we face and the commitments we have made. But I wonder if this is in fact a good day to consider the challenge of Micah 6:8:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (NIV)
Goodness, justice and mercy are ideals we espouse, at least in the abstract. Humility, not so much, but to acknowledge at very least that we are not “the greatest thing on earth” and to recognize our answerability to Someone greater (as well as our place among the other peoples made by this God) might be a far better response to this day than nationalistic chest-thumping.