Reflection: Dare to look up
A look back at one of the nation’s darkest days and its lasting impact
This fall marks the 15th anniversary of one eternal, dreadful morning and the days that followed in our nation’s memory.
Most of the college freshmen I met last fall never remembered personally experiencing history as it happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
I realize this with an inexplicable mix of sadness, indignation and awe.
The day of 9/11 was to me and my parents what Kennedy’s death was to their parents and what Pearl Harbor was to their parents’ parents.
This year’s freshmen will be the first to never fully connect with me over how I watched and made clumsy, seven-year-old sense of the live horror on TV. How I realized that my dad had been in the air to Tokyo that morning — or so we hoped — before my mom finally heard his voice on the phone.
No, these kids will not quite connect to my distant experience, much less the immediate and crushing agony too many others
experienced that day.
We will always remember the attacks, of course. But more out of necessity than comfort, we will also remember the aftermath. The devastation that was 9/11 realigned our entire nation in mind, heart, and spirit.
We saw this sudden realignment in the people who ran toward the tsunami of smoke instead of fleeing with thousands the other way. We saw it in the likes of Welles Crowther, going up the stairwell instead of down with just a red bandana around his nose and one life to give for 12 others.
We saw it in the lion-hearted Fire Department of the city of New York (FDNY) who were, as columnist Peggy Noonan so aptly entitled them, the Light Brigade of our day. We will eternally hear it in two little words, “Let’s roll.”
We surely saw unity in the heroism of that day. But there was another kind unity in New York City — and the rest of the nation, to some degree — during the following months that words cannot aptly describe.
The realignment here was not a quick switch in the thick of peril; it was a slow, wincing turn amid the settling smoke and the countless hours of work to follow.
No one in NYC was above digging through “the pile.” According to The Saratogian, retired fire chief John Betor recalled the “organized mass confusion” he saw in the thousands of volunteers at Ground Zero.
As an operations officer at the time, Betor said that although typical FDNY response protocol was largely ignored by the mass of volunteers, he found that the “free-for-all” aura there was not a totally negative thing.
Everyone was looking for something. A body. A memento. The ground. Hope.
People’s hearts suddenly unlocked to spill raw compassion however they were prompted in the moment.
People’s minds learned to sort the superficial from the eternal, lightly brushing their desperately outstretched hands across heaven’s surface for one moment. People’s untended spirits suddenly enlivened, and learned to look inward as well as outward. Some even dared to pray. Strangers and rivals became brothers and sisters.
But ease is now curling up in our laps again, purring as it poises its retracted claws.
My own generation largely does not remember or even know how it feels to have our country’s values so immediately and suddenly threatened as they were 15 years ago.
Of course, we have certainly received bitter doses from within — Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Orlando, and Dallas, to name a few. We know that profound evil is among us, even passing off as part of us. But we are numb to it.
We have become our own warring factions. We are divided among ourselves and proud in it. Certain lives seem to matter more than others. Our own president’s role in fanning this multi-faceted division is no small one.
Division is obviously seen in the outright aggression, but how often we forget that it also masquerades as pacifist acceptance.
Any divergent (read: traditional) perspectives on even the most fundamental human principles, like identity, are demonized now in the name of tolerance and cultural relevance by my generation, as we deal with our “quarter-life crises” on the side.
As a people who either know what reality is but choose not to acknowledge it, or who really and truly cannot discern what reality is anymore, how are we to ever deal with the living, breathing, hungry reality of something else to come? I’d say “God help us,” but that’s a religiously marginalizing statement, isn’t it?
A thought there.
Pew Research conducted a study in 2010 showing that millennials as a whole claim little to no religious affiliation. Only 37 percent claim any “strong” affiliation.
Surprising? To think so is naïve. We have it in our power to be our own moral titans. No concept is so beyond reason anymore that we cannot at least touch it with a quick swipe through Google.
Mystery has become a cutesy plot trope we smile at in old movies. No religion is better or worse, more peaceful or more dangerous, than any other one.
Another Pew Research poll conducted in December, 2001 showed that those whose prayer and worship life increased after the attacks were already the most religious of their peer groups.
This indicates not quite the radical religious shift seemingly represented by all of the heart-wrenching, skyward-pointing stories we’ve all heard.
Yet in an interview for The National Catholic Register, Cardinal Edward Egan recalled the 9/11 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the crowd in attendance so far outnumbered the usual 500 that they spilled into the street outside.
It was not the state department that these people ran to, nor was it DC, nor as it even their own homes. It was the church.
While the spiritual realm of people’s hearts is something that I cannot and will not make a sweeping judgment about, I do recognize one generality that was evident in 9/11 and its aftermath. There was undeniably a spiritual awakening that day.
For some, it meant religious rejection. For others, it meant finding God. Still for others, it meant simply being a little kinder and gentler toward others than their natures allowed.
All were shaken and shattered, but many took the hard and high road out of the misery through a cracked open spirit and a new kind of love. This love looked different for every person, but was in essence a love beyond themselves. Just for a moment, though.
I can’t help but wonder: Are we due another national realignment? I pray not, but if it comes, may we all — every generation — have a collective mind steeled to bravely face the terror, a collective spirit opened to allow change, and a collective heart unlocked to spill raw compassion as those of us did amid the ashes of 9/11.
Let us not be so tall in ourselves that we forget the enormous unknown sky above us, and look up to wonder. And maybe even dare to pray.
jarrett is an opinion writer.