Historians know that there is History and history, that is, what actually happened and our stories about what happened. In a reference to photographs that caught the experiences of Sept. 11, 2001, Garrison Keillor wrote: “The mainstream media seized upon inspirational and patriotic images, such as the picture of three firemen [placing the flag on the mound of rubble]; thus began a sort of mythification of the day into which George W. Bush and Rudolph Giuliani entered, bearing spears and shields.”
But these were not the only stories. While national leaders prepared for war, many Americans paused in wonder amid the pain. We met people who lost loved ones, each with a story; we attended remarkable ceremonies and heard about others; there was a lot of silence. I recall a reflection session at the College of the Holy Cross where some expressed strong political reactions, but William E. Reiser, S.J., then a professor of religious studies, said quietly that he found it too overwhelming to offer a thoughtful response quite yet. Later I read of ministers at the site, who simply listened to the anguish of stricken families and exhausted rescuers. Mychal Judge, O.F.M., a chaplain with the New York City Fire Department, who has been called “the saint of 9/11,” asked his Lord to take him where he was supposed to go, then “keep me out of your way.” He died that day.
Although distressed by the quick, public talk of war, I was also absorbed by stories of the people of 9/11—people into whose lives history as actuality exploded that September day. I could not get enough of those stories, captured in the reporting of superb journalists like Jim Dwyer and in the profiles of victims published day after day, week after week, in The New York Times. And I could not stop looking at those powerful iconic photographs—images of sacrifice, death and heroic generosity. In one image a young fireman, Michael Kehoe, a 9/11 survivor, is ascending the stairs as office workers quickly descend. Later one of those office workers, John Labriola, an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, reportedly said: “The one conclusion I came to on 9/11 is that people in the stairwell…really were in ‘a state of grace.’ They helped each other. They didn’t panic. Most people are basically good. I know this, with certainty, because I had gone through the crucible. What a great example people left: be selfless, help the person around you and get through it.”
From life stories of victims, unending stories of helping and remarkable reports of mourning, I learned, maybe relearned, lessons of love. How many stories told of airline passengers and workers at the twin towers, knowing they would die, who called others to say “I love you.” I learned that American individualism is real and, for the most part, good; we Americans, at least among our own, value persons as persons, thank God. Selfish individualism is another myth, for when the chips of life were down, many endangered Americans thought not of themselves but of others. I have always cherished the line from “Lumen Gentium” (No. 31) that describes the many relationships we have in family, workplace and neighborhood as a complex fabric from which “the very web of our existence is woven.” As fascinating stories of such webs were told, it became clear to me (Why had it been so dim?) how much love really does matter.
It is easy to dismiss these accounts as sentimental. But I found in people like Labriola, Dwyer and Judge a populist realism, an awareness that we are all limited, that evil and sin are real, but that hope, faith and love happen right here in the middle of life.
The experience of 9/11 reminded me that I am an Americanist. Growing up in a Catholic, cold war subculture, I never understood that I might have to choose between being Catholic and American. I thus became an American historian, not a church historian, interested in, worried about, taking responsibility for, as best I could, the past, present and future of American Catholics, who were Americans as much as Catholics.
The events of 9/11 left me determined to contest the countercultural, sectarian Catholicism increasingly dominant in our church. This Catholicism thinks we Catholics can define ourselves by our difference and distance from other Americans. Such views are sometimes challenging; more often they are hypocritical, irresponsible, blaming of others while exempting ourselves, standing apart. In contrast, Father Judge stood with his people.
On 9/11 this country was tested and, for a shining moment, found worthy.
That experience led me to a recommitment to the United States and Americans, and to the American—and Christian—vision of a single human family. That vision was grounded in memories of family and anti-communist Catholicism. It was challenged and revised by encounters with a diverse group of people, like John XXIII, Norman Thomas, Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Catholic Worker Movement. After 9/11, I found myself drawn to shared responsibility by history itself.
History is not made by somebody else in some other time and place. No, we ourselves make history by our choices. The meaning of 9/11, an example of history as story, will be constructed from the choices we continue to make in its wake.
So far too many public choices have promoted civic idolatry and empire, or even death. But the story is not over. Look at all the love that day. Love can write another chapter and keep hope alive for a better future. The meaning of 9/11 lies ahead. It is in our hands and in our hearts.
Listen to an interview with David O'Brien.