I remember my dad knowing exactly where he was on December 7, 1941. He was celebrating his 12th birthday eating ice cream at a neighborhood soda shop when word came across the radio about the attack at Pearl Harbor. At that moment a world divided and our country united. His world, and ours, would never be the same.
On Tuesday September 11, I was sitting at a staff meeting. News came into our meeting when a friend called on a Palm phone to share with us that a small twin-engine plane hit the World Trade Center, probably the result of the pilot having a heart attack. Within an hour, the exact details would emerge.
Around 9:00 a.m., I went to my office to take a call from my father. Nearly in tears, he just kept saying he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Two commercial airliners had hit both towers and they were burning. Suddenly, word arrived that a plane hit the Pentagon. We were at war. But with whom? With how many? Where would they attack next? From this uncertainty, there were rumors of other planes and a report there was shooting and bombing in Washington, DC. This report of chaos would later be dismissed. In addition, there were reports of missing commercial planes, probably headed for Chicago, or Philadelphia. At one point one of our administrative assistants whose son attended college in Maryland, wanted desperately to make contact with him for fear that one of the planes, possibly headed for Washington, might choose another target. How prophetic, as Flight 93 came short of Washington, crashing in western Pennsylvania. At the time we had very little information in our office. We did not have sophisticated Internet capability, nor were there multitudes of websites to quickly gather information. A small group of us gathered as we watched a static-filled TV screen, not understanding what we were seeing. It appeared that the buildings were actually collapsing. The static must have been deceiving us. Holding our heads, we gasped and shouted out loud as reality set in. Suddenly, the world went silent.
We closed our office, schools, airlines shut down, and churches opened. For the next few days of shock, there was a mysterious pause. It was like the same reflective quiet you can hear at midnight on Christmas Eve. On that Thursday after, I attended an impromptu mass at St. Mary’s, knelt and cried. I cried for the souls that died and I cried for you. I think I knew at that time that the world would never be the same, but I wasn’t sure how. I absorbed the collective reflection.
Evil showed his face that day. I was struck by the newspaper images on September 12, showing a burning World Trade Center with a cloud that formed the face of the devil. We struggled to understand how a loving God could allow this kind of evil to erupt. I received calls from friends overseas to express sorrow, as if I had lost a loved one. They were so sad because America had enjoyed the freedom from terror that so many other countries endured daily. And there were local connections. Friends who had lost children, friends who had lost parents, friends who had witnessed the desperate jumping to their deaths from the burning Twin Towers. In the face of this horror, where was our hope?
Sometime around September 14, I was walking on Union Street and approached a corner as what looked like a homeless man approached the same corner at the same time. In a strange way we stopped for a brief moment and looked into each other’s eyes and almost simultaneously said, “Are you OK?” And so it began. During this brief time, maybe a week, as a nation we began to deeply examine all that was good about us. A nation united. As a people led by a God, we began to witness the empathy and the interconnectedness God gave us at birth, but sometimes lose. We did not lose it that week. We saw other nations hold candlelight vigils and in peace, we united with the world. It was beautiful. Even the political class, in shock from the attacks, appeared unified, devoid of party and rank, in front of the Capitol and sang God Bless America. Judging from our uniting experience on December 7, 1941, I saw the silver lining for September 11, 2001.
I am sad to report that the unity degenerated. I often wonder if the terrorists understood that to defeat a mighty country like the United States, they needed to have the country defeat itself. If their goal was to damage us economically, they would be pleased to know that they not only plunged us into recession, a reckless reaction that we had to the recession caused a near depression in 2008. If their goal was to weaken us by causing dissension, they would be pleased to see part of the country calling the other non-American for not supporting a war on terror. They would be equally pleased to see our leaders calling political opponents enemies of the State and endorsing war on fellow American’s because of dissenting opinion. Ten years after the September 11 attacks, I am saddened by our lack of clarity, our lack of unity and our lack of leadership at multiple levels. So I look to you.
My children, you are our hope. You have the gift of a clean slate and bear witness to our shortcomings. Take stock in knowing the founders of our country called us the United States of America because they knew we would be made of different people united under the common principle of personal freedom, guidance from the Almighty, and a burning desire for a better way. Show us that way.