Of Many Things

On this fifth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I have many memories of Sept. 11, 2001. Images flicker in the back of my mind when I am on the way to the airport or gazing up at a skyscraper on a blue-sky day. I expect the news stations this week will offer a nonstop rehash of those events, along with treacly, sentimental montages and shrill talking heads. Still, I know that remembering is important. George Santayana’s words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” encapsulate many of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. Likewise, as Christians we believe that it is precisely in our remembering that we come to wisdom and new life. Each week we gather around the table of the Lord to remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And we believe that this action is not simply the mental recollection of a past event. We come hoping to be forgiven, to be nourished, to be challenged and sent forth; and we believe that our act of remembering is a means through which God enters into and transfigures our lives.

So over the last couple of months I have been trying to take some time to remember, asking God to help me discern what from those days I need to see now. Two moments have stood out. The first is a disgrace and an embarrassment. On the morning of Sept. 11, I remember my pal Mike coming to my door, having rushed up two flights of stairs. It was around nine o’clock. “Jim,” he said, “I think you better get down here. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

And I looked up at him from my computer and thought, Doesn’t he see I am checking my e-mail? Doesn’t he see I am BUSY? Lost in my own little world, I could hardly be bothered with a plane crash in New York City. I practically glared him out of the room.

I’d call this one unfortunate moment, except that as I look back now I see it happens with some regularity. It’s just another hurricane. There’s always fighting in the Middle East. Gray, fishy lids obscure my vision.

When I did finally go downstairs to join my community around the television set, I remember watching the fires, the bystanders and the poor, doomed souls jumping out of the windows of the towers. It was inconceivable and horrifying.

And a few of them were holding hands. That is the other detail I keep remembering—people jumping out of windows holding hands. Who were those people? You would think, with all the stories that have been told about Sept. 11, that we would have heard, but I haven’t seen anything. Perhaps they were lovers or spouses. Probably they were just colleagues in the same company. Maybe they didn’t even get along, were nasty to each other in that petty, office-politics sort of way—lots of whispered stories, snickers and cold shoulders.

I try to imagine what must have been going through their minds in that last hour of their lives. It was getting very hot; there was smoke and flame and no way out. They were never going to see anything or anyone important to them again. They were going to die, it was going to be scary and painful, and they were alone.

At that precise moment of utter catastrophe, they looked up and reached out to another. They expressed their need. And in doing so, they became a source of comfort for each other. They held hands, and yes, they were still going to die. But they were no longer alone.

In those weeks following the attack, I felt as if something similar happened to all of us. We were all a little less removed and self-centered. We talked to strangers on the street, treated people a little more gently, maybe asked for help. It was as if the scales fell from all our eyes not just regarding the state of the world we had been living in, but regarding ourselves and the human beings we had been living around.

Five years later, our memories of Sept. 11 speak to us in many different ways. Personally, I find I am faced with a choice between reaching out and isolation. Mis-understanding, callous indifference and hate are the products of isolation; reaching out, on the other hand, entails vulnerability and human connection.

Much of what is going on in our world argues for personal and national isolation and self-protection. And yet, looking back I can’t help but think Christ stood in our midst and showed us another way.

America’s editors are pleased to welcome as a new regular columnist Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of international relations at The Catholic University of America and author of major studies on globalization and on ethics in the war on terror. She is also a best-selling writer of children’s books, with more than 500,000 copies in print in five languages.

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