Reflections on September 11

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On our way across Michigan on morning Thursday morning, (September 11), Sarah and I started scanning through the radio. After listening to a few bad dance songs, we stumbled across James Dobson and one of his cohorts, introducing the testimony of a survivor of the World Trade Center attacks of seven years ago that day.

“Do you mind if we listen to this?” Sarah asked, “I think it’s important to remember.”

“Of course!” I replied, “This is absolutely appropriate.”

I have not often encountered Dr. Dobson’s radio messages. I’m not exactly a fan, for a variety of reasons, and Sarah has picked upon on this fact in the course of our conversations. But on this occasion I was very glad to have Dobson on the dial: the only other encouragement to remember we received through the afternoon came as a vague set of “music of remembrance” on the classical station and a thirty second mention of “Patriot Day” on the oldies station.

The story that followed was quite remarkable. (Here is a link to that interview.) The gentleman speaking, Stanley Praimnath, worked on the 81st floor (!) of Tower 2. While his instincts told him to leave the building after the first tower was hit, security told him that the building was secure, and that he should return to his office. He was, consequently, at every dangerous place when the plane struck. He dramatically described looking out his window at the last moment, catching the glimpse of a plane at eyelevel, and diving under his desk with a quick prayer.

He recounted how he prayed for someone to help him: someone (fortunately equipped with a flashlight) appeared, and agreed to wait for him. He dug through the rubble, and fought his way to the stairwell. His instincts told him the building was coming down, and he spurred his companion onward.
All in all, his interpretation and telling of his miraculous survival was highly theological manner, emphasizing God’s salvation, provision, protection. I know some people who would find this encouraging and uplifting, and others who would find it irritating and a distraction from the facts. Personally, I did not mind, one way or the other. And I appreciated his honesty in acknowledging that he did not know why God saved him, and so few of those around him.

It was a poignant and timely tale to catch on the radio.

Yet I wonder. While I appreciated the story, and the acknowledgement that there were many good Christians who God did not save that day, I would have liked to hear the story of a family who lost a love one, and have been on a journey of catharsis and healing through their faith and church.
I don’t think such a testimony needed to replace this tale. But we Americans like to emphasize the victorious, the delivered, the visibly and dramatically saved; or the hero, the martyr, who gave his life for the service of others. Those are the stories we tell as a culture.

As Christians, I feel like we too rarely give stage time to the opposing reality: the fact that, thorough the Cross, God suffers with us. The Cross, of course, has a double meaning—after all, it points to resurrection. But we cannot experience the full light and joy of resurrection without experiencing the full darkness and despair of death.

Certainly, we overcome through Christ. But if this is the only story we tell, we banish from our solemn assembly all pain and suffering, and in turn, humanity itself. We need to know, not only that God saves us, and will save us, but that he is with us, even when our suffering is deep, profound, and horrible.

Dr. Dobson also announced that many Americans don’t remember 9-11. This is flatly false, and a bit offensive. 9-11 is something that we are still processing as a culture, and a number of people are unsure of how to appropriately interpret and memorialize it. But no one has forgotten. Even if they did not intentionally sit down to consider the events of 2001, every person who so much as dated a check or glanced at a calendar certainly experienced an electric jolt of memory associated with those numbers.

It’s true that we do not yet have a ritual consciousness for memorializing that event seven years ago. Such public ritual is important, and I imagine it would be quite helpful as we process that fateful day into our national memory. But the absence, thus far, of such ritual is not forgetting: it merely indicates that we do not yet have enough cultural distance from the event to feel the need for such rituals.

Through the remainder of the day, I reflected on the place of September 11th in our cultural memory, and our collective subconscious. How might future generations interpret it? How are we publically interpreting the event, seven years later?

The twin towers
The twin towers

The most vocal community of interpreters is, of course, the crazy conspirators, who are convinced that “9-11 was an inside job.” Personally, I think it’s a load of crock, hardly worth considering. The facts just don’t check out logically. (Come on: there’s got to be a better way to start a war. Any organization that has the intellectual resources to plan a 9-11 for warmongering can certainly figure out another excuse with a lower human cost.)
But it is interesting, sociologically speaking, that it has gained quite as much public traction as it has. That people are willing to accept such an absurd mythology indicates an extremely high level of distrust in the government.

I can imagine a future history in which the conspiratorial interpretation becomes the accepted interpretation. If public distrust of the government continues to grow, so will the prevalence of said theory. It is certain that our society and way of life will continue to change rapidly over the next several decades, so who knows what the attitudes of future Americans might be? Of course, the content of history books of the future is quite speculative.

In the evening, we watched the History Channel special “102 Minutes that Changed America—” footage and sound recordings made on 9-11 by people on the street with video cameras, arranged to unfold in real time.

It occurred to me that the events and images of that day have been subtly resurfacing from time to time in film. I think of the imagery at the end of Batman Begins—the closed off island, the chaos, the eruption of fear in the form of mist, the fact that fear itself was the weapon unleashed on the city: it is not unlike the cloud of panic that engulfed New York City seven years ago, as the towers came crashing down. Or how about Tom Cruise running from the alien incursion at the beginning of War of the Worlds, as unlucky people around him are zapped into dust?

I wonder to what extent post-apocalyptic images of the City were influenced by the publically consumed images surrounding 9-11. Would the deserted world of I am Legend or WALL-E have been possible if we hadn’t witnessed our world coming apart? Would they have been conceivable if our faith in our System and Way of Life had not been shaken by that day?

And I think of the more recently released Batman movie: how it explored the psychology of anarchism, and highlighted subtle moral ambiguities in the battle between good and evil. Would we have this sort of consciousness, if not for September 11, and our ensuing struggle against invisible and chaotic forces that threaten our social fabric?

What does September 11th mean to me, seven years after the fact?

As I have thought of it this year, September 11th has come to represent to me the frailty of our system, and the fragility and mutability of our way of life. This is not a frightening thing: fundamentally, it is a reality. God is in control—we are not. Our best plans are not infallible, our strongest towers are not unassailable. We must remember that—indeed, this reality must be at the center of our existence. We are mortals, after all, as much as we believe that we can conquer our mortality.

It is not polite, in our culture, to remind ourselves that we are impermanent beings upon an impermanent earth. But if we do not accept this reality, and integrate it into our existence, we will be invisibly controlled by it. We will build our lives around being secure, and then one day we will find that security shattered, suddenly, and ourselves powerless to fight back.

This is true, both in our personal lives, and in our social world. We learned on September 11th that the orderly and pedantic procession of the city streets is only a finely tuned illusion: only a few moments separate it from chaos and confusion.

And so September 11th, in retrospect, prompted me to place my trust more in God, and less in the Powers that Be. Empires will come and go, nations rise and fall, but God never changes. The System may fail us, but God will not abandon us.

This is the meaning of the Incarnation. It is not that God snaps his fingers and solves all our problems, or agrees to answer all our prayers if we are on our best behavior. It is that he enters into our experience and lives with us, helping us to instill our fortunes and misfortunes with holiness.
To deny this Gospel does not offend God, but deprives us of his friendship, and the subsequent adventurous life of the Holy Spirit. We are instead left to the whims of fear, and the rising and falling of the waves of chance.

September 11th changed the world: for better or for worse is for God to judge. But in my world, at least, it was a parable that has fueled my quest for the heavenly home, that treasury where thieves do not break in and steal, nor mold and decay spoil.

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