Readings: September 11--How it Changed Us

Ten years ago I was preparing class in my room at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City when the phone rang. It was my friend Bryan Kelly, a recent Fordham grad and member of the swimming team, calling from Tokyo, where he was studying for an MBA. A few weeks before we had met in New York and climbed to the observation deck of the World Trade Center, where we looked out into space and wondered whether, if we fell, we would land on the Brooklyn Bridge. The WTC was burning, he said. He had seen it on CNN.

I rushed to the roof of our apartment building, and there it was, across the Hudson—smoke billowing into the clouds. And suddenly the one on the left crumbled into itself and collapsed.

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The National Catholic Reporter called and asked me to do a story, so I hustled down to the waterfront to interview witnesses. A young man on a bike cursed the @#$%^& who did this and volunteered to join a raid of retaliation. “Would you volunteer to blow yourself up?” I asked. “No, I’d volunteer to push the button.” He stopped himself and apologized for his attitude. His wife was over there, but she was all right.

How would I explain this to my theology class? It’s all in the Genesis. Cain kills Abel in a jealous fit, his descendants in Babel built a tower to the sky to “make a name for themselves,” and God scattered them over the earth to punish their overreaching. At the college Mass I placed the Eucharist in the hands of the students and said, “Body of Christ,” thinking “broken for us,” and told myself that this is why we have Catholic colleges, to teach the young how to mourn together and then reach out to a world suffering more than themselves.

A year later PBS Frontline TV documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” gave voice to those who cursed God when the towers fell and also those who in time have found God by understanding Him differently, as Dave Toolan, S.J., an America editor who died that year, portrayed Him—“not wrapped up in himself,” but involved, changing, suffering along with the world he created and is calling into the future. Frontline, which will be re-broadcast Wednesday, Sept. 7, tells the story of the fireman who lost his 24-year-old fireman son. He is not content with God’s silence, but believes his son is with God, watching over the family.

The best book on 9/11 remains Jim Dwyer’s 102 Minutes, the minute-by-minute account of what happened inside the buildings after the planes hit, and a tribute to the heroism of men and women who spent their last minutes helping and loving one another.

Meanwhile, the current Chronicle of Higher Education offers a symposium where 13 scholars appraise what the attack has done to American culture. This is less inspiring. We come away feeling that, in spite of the heroism, we have been duped by the “war on terrorism” slogan to—rather than become more concerned with the larger world—turn in upon ourselves, to give in to a climate of fear. We have enabled the country’s leadership to sacrifice basic principles of human rights because “defeating terrorism” justifies torture, imprisoning men for life without presenting charges in court, summary execution, and, above all, invading Iraq with the trumped-up justification of “weapons of mass destruction.” There was no connection between 9/11 and Iraq, but the Bush administration, with the acquiescence of a cowardly a Congress, gave us two unending wars which have destroyed our economy and the lives of thousands of young men and women.

This, of course, is what the terrorist wants. With no national army. with a criminal act of violence, usually a bombing, he provokes the major power to retaliate with an overwhelming “We’ll teach those terrorists a lesson” blow, usually one that kills innocent citizens as well as some of the “bad guys.” They have tricked the major power into invading their territory, killing more innocents and disrupting their way of life, and wrecking its own culture at the same time.

Is there room on a wall at the new WTC or in our hearts for a memorial to all the victims of our wars?

Raymond A. Schroth

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