Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11/11 - Reflections

{Fort Rosecrans, Veteran's Day, 2010}

Ten years ago today, the world changed. It is a cliché because it is true. After ten years of 24 hour news and terror alerts, ten years of war and flag pins and heightened security, it is hard to remember that it was ever different. The consequences of that day have been far-reaching. After that day, there were 2,977 empty seats at dinner tables across the country, 2,977 holes left in American families of all races and religions.  In the ten years since the attacks, my brother and millions of other men and women from around the world have risked their lives in wars that were set in motion on September 11th, 2011. In addition to the military casualties, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have been killed, caught in the crossfire or victims of suicide bombers. It is almost too much to contemplate.  

This is the first anniversary that I have allowed myself to become immersed in the memories, to relive that day again. The video of the plane hitting the second tower and of the towers collapsing is as shocking today as it was ten years ago.  What is different today, however, is this - now we know the stories. When we watched ten years ago, the victims were unknown, but today we know their stories. I have been listening to these individual stories all week, and they are all moving, but the story of Fr. Mychal Judge, NYFD's Franciscan chaplain, is particularly touching and inspiring. (You can read about him here and here. The second link includes passages from the very touching homily from his funeral Mass.) I don’t think I’ll do it again, but today it felt right to watch the memorial, to listen to the names being read, to look again at the images of the destruction and of hope that came out of that day.

Ten years ago today, I got up early (by college standards) to go to the gym before class; I felt the need that morning to try to find some calm and clarity on the treadmill. You see, even before the planes hit, September 11th was already a dark day on the campus of the College of the Holy Cross. The night before, my friends and I had gathered at the chapel on campus to attend Mass in honor of a classmate and friend who had killed himself that evening. We had stayed up late crying and wondering how Jake had reached a point where life was no longer worth the effort. In the days that followed, I often wondered if Jake would have acted differently had he lived another twenty-four hours and experienced our shared national grief.  When we attended Jake's funeral on September 13th, I thought of the thousands of families who would be holding similar gatherings in the coming weeks.

My memories from September 11th are vivid but fragmented.  I clearly remember that the radio at the gym was tuned to a local hip-hop station, and I was kind of half-listening when the news came on. They reported that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Towers in New York. The dj reported this news and then returned to the music. At this point, the crash was being treated as a freak accident, so I pushed it out of my mind and continued my workout. When the dj interrupted the music several minutes later to report that a plane had hit the second tower, I, along with everyone else in the room, stopped and just listened.

It soon became clear that at least one of the planes had originated in Boston and was headed for Los Angeles. I knew my dad was scheduled to fly to the West Coast through Logan that day, so I immediately started to panic.  I was dialing home as I sped out of the gym, mentally repeating the prayers that reflexively spring to my lips in times of crisis. My mom answered immediately and, as she always does, calmed my fears. My father’s flight had been scheduled for later in the day and like every other flight that day, had since been canceled. Selfishly relieved that my own personal tragedy had been averted and still unaware of the magnitude of the day’s events, I headed to the campus center where TVs had been rolled out and where professors, students, and staff gathered to watch the news as the unimaginable unfolded.

At the campus center, I met my roommate Lauren who was returning from a class that had been cut short when the news broke. We hugged and cried and headed back to our apartment. The rest of the day is a blur in my memory. I know my roommates and I spent most of the rest of the day rooted to the plaid couch in our living room, a cloud of smoke from countless cigarettes hovering around us. I know that there were more frightened and tearful calls home. I know that at one point we ventured back to campus and walked through the doors of St. Joseph’s Chapel where we had been just the night before. The four of us slipped into a pew and took to our knees. Although I attended Mass every Sunday with my family while at home, I had slacked off in this department since coming to college, but that day, church seemed like the right place to be. I remember that I prayed that night for peace. Less than twelve hours into this ordeal, it was clear that we had been attacked and that war would be a very likely outcome.

I remember talking to my parents, debating whether or not I should pick my sister up at a nearby college and head to the comfort and safety of our home in Vermont.  I remember that there was talk of my father and some other doctors from Vermont heading to New York to offer medical assistance to the survivors that at that time we thought would be pulled from the wreckage in the coming days. It soon became clear that no additional medical help would be necessary as only twenty-three people survived the collapse of the towers. I remember the sense of unity that was everywhere in the days following the attacks. I remember that the same hip hop station that broke the news to me that morning played the country song I’m Proud to Be an American frequently in the days after the attacks. I remember that people wanting to donate were turned away from blood banks because they were at capacity. Every tragic story that emerged from the rubble seemed to bind us closer together.

In thinking about this anniversary, I pulled out my college scrapbook and found the front page of my college newspaper from September 14th, 2001. The front page is split, one side covers Jake’s death and the other is a story about the attacks.

{The Crusader, September 14, 2001}
In my scrapbook is also the transcript of Jon Stewart’s first monologue after the Daily Show returned to the air following the attacks. (My devotion to Mr. Stewart and the Daily Show goes way back.) I saved it because I was so moved by his obvious emotion and by his message of hope, so I will close with this excerpt.

             I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair… One of my first memories is of Martin Luther King being shot… That was a tremendous test of this country’s fabric and this country’s had many tests before that and after that. The reason I don’t despair is because -- this attack happened. It’s not a dream. But the aftermath of it - the recovery, is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King’s dream. Whatever barriers we’ve put up are gone, even if it’s momentary. We’re judging people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. You know, all this talk about, “These guys are criminal masterminds. They’ve gotten together and their extraordinary guile…and their wit and their skill…” It’s a lie. Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these firefighters, these policemen, and people from all over the country, literally - with buckets - rebuilding. That’s extraordinary. That’s why we’ve already won. It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down. They live in chaos, and chaos, it can’t sustain itself. It never could. It’s too easy and it’s too unsatisfying.

The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center, and now it’s gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce. And it is gone. But you what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty…you can’t beat that.

 The entire episode is below, and his opening remarks are the first ten minutes or so.

My prayer today is the same as it was ten years ago - bring us peace. Bring peace to our minds, our hearts, and our battlefields.

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