At 10:30 a.m. on 9/11 I walked in to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in Westerville, Ohio to get my driver’s license renewed. I strolled in, knowing nothing of what was happening, watched the second World Trade Center tower tumble to the ground, and then about a minute later had to sit in front of a camera and have my picture taken for my driver’s license. The world is about to end; smile at the count of three. I carried that photo around with me for four years. I look like I’m in shock, possibly because I was. I’m smiling, right on cue, and tears are rolling down my face. Amazingly, within a couple weeks I, along with most Americans, was back doing the things I always did, pretending like none of it had happened.
But it did. I have a friend who wrote about an extraordinary lunchtime conversation he overheard on 9/11. Less than three hours after Armageddon, a group of women sat around in a restaurant and talked about their weekend sexual conquests and discussed plans to go shopping. My finely tuned sense of moral outrage kicked in when I read his story. How can people be so shallow? How can they be so self-centered?
Me? I went home and alternated between being drawn to the television and being repelled by the television, wanting to watch and wanting to turn it off and make it all go away. I cried easily. I prayed easily. I wanted to pound my head into the wall. But the next week I started a new job. I had a lot of new information to assimilate. I had to be “on.” And, as rumors of another impending attack filled the airwaves, as stories of ricin and anthrax in the water supply made the rounds, I did my best to concentrate on electronic data interchange and X12 standards and other esoterica that had little or nothing to do with the state of the world, but everything to do with the state of my ability to put food on the table. In short, I went back to normal life.
We cannot sustain the kind of hyper-charged reality that 9/11 temporarily thrust upon us. Some people get past it remarkably quickly, and end up making very, very small talk at lunchtime on the day of a catastrophe. For others it takes a few days, a few weeks. But we all get past it. We go back to doing what we do – going to work, spending time with our families and friends, listening to music, watching TV, puttering around in the woodshop or the garden. It is mundane life, and it is better, or at least easier to bear, than abject fear and terror.
Last night CBS showed a remarkable documentary. Two French filmmakers were making a documentary about the life of a young fireman, tracking his progress from the training academy to life on the job. He was stationed in Engine House #7 in lower Manhattan, seven blocks from the World Trade Center. In the middle of their documentary a catastrophe of unimagined horror happened. Quite by accident, they ended up filming a remarkably stark, graphic portrayal of 9/11, embedded with the first firefighters who arrived on the scene, milling about in the lobby of Tower #1. There is chaos all around the firefighters. People are running. Every minute or so a frighteningly loud thud is heard. That is the sound of bodies who have jumped from eighty floors above them. Their bodies literally explode on impact. A young fireman looks shocked, the fear radiating from his eyes. “What the fuck must it be like up there,” he muses aloud, not even knowing that a camera is trained on him, “if people think that jumping from the eightieth floor is their best alternative?” Fifteen minutes after the firefighters arrive the first tower collapses, and that is caught on film from inside the lobby of the tower. The roar of collapsing floors above the firefighters is, I think, the saddest sound I’ve ever heard in my life. I couldn’t stand it. I hated it. But I couldn’t turn it off.
We will never forget. It’s a marketing slogan these days, a handy catchphrase that encapsulates and trivializes an event so massive that it cannot be contained. But we do forget. We have to in order to go on living. We file it away like we would the snapshots from our family vacations. We pull them out occasionally, acknowledge that they happened, and then go back to the mundane. And perhaps that is all we can do. But today, at least for today, it is worth remembering, really remembering. Don’t trivialize it. Go back to 9/11 and relive it, just for a little while.
The events of the past five years have deeply divided America. We are at war. We have sacrificed valuable freedoms. And we could be attacked again, at any moment. There are no easy answers. But regardless of your political persuasions, think about these statements. They are true. You can read them defiantly if it makes you feel better. That’s the way I prefer to read them. Take that, you purveyors of doom and despair. Or you can read them through tears, read them in memory of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11. I do that, too. Either way, read them, and believe them, and remember what has been lost, and remember what cannot be lost.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
"To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One.
Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God"?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
-- Isaiah 40:21-31