I turned 40 years old on my last birthday. I was too small to know what was happening when JFK was assassinated, knowing only that the grown-ups were upset by something. I understood a little better when Bobby and Martin were killed, but I was not yet aware of who these great men were.
In my lifetime, there have been only a few public tragedies that have stopped me cold and threatened to overwhelm me.
Jonestown … George Moscone and Harvey Milk … John Lennon … The Challenger … Oklahoma City … Columbine …
… today, September 11 2001.
They seem to be getting closer together and more horrific.
It was about 9:30 this morning when I first heard the news in my car. First one, then another commercial airplane flown into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack. I wondered if anyone else at work had heard. That question was answered by the ashen face of our receptionist. “Have you heard?” “I was just listening…” “Did you hear about the Pentagon too?” “The Pentagon…?!” It was like that all morning, everybody wanting to hear more, wanting to tell more, hoping it would stop. I tried to do some work but couldn’t concentrate. A TV was set up in a conference room. I stood in back and watched some of the live coverage. My god, only one tower is standing. I stared, unbelieving, as the other collapsed. The more we watched, the worse it got.
A meeting was called for all supervisors at 11:00. Our department is not closing, they announced, we must carry on and keep the system working, to do otherwise would be exactly what the terrorists want us to do. Does any one have any other suggestions? You mean other than letting us all go home so we can be with our families, I did not ask.
Are the schools staying open? Will there be an emergency blood drive at the hospital? People just want to do something, said the woman next to me, because we’re so angry.
Angry? Yes, I should be angry, I thought. Why do I not feel anger? Am I just too numb?
I left work early to deliver some papers to the elementary school. It was just after lunch as the kids were returning to their classrooms , so I slipped in to the cafeteria to see if I could find either of my girls. My youngest had left already, but my oldest was still in line with the rest of her class. She gave me a big hug and a kiss and asked what I was doing there.
I couldn’t answer. I could barely say anything at all. I was starting to lose it. Right there, right then, in front of all those children, I needed to be the adult and keep control.
She left with her class, smiling broadly and waving. I stepped outside onto the playground, sat down on a bench, and for the first time in a long time, bawled like a baby…
“To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil. They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life. Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness. Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind. Justice will prevail. Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, ‘Let us not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good’.”
Our national leaders have important roles to play as consolers and reconcilers. After Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton, the President of our nation, the man I voted for, delivered these words of compassion and renewal. So far, the only words I have heard from George Bush are promises to “hunt down and find those folks who committed this act”, but I will give him time. I hope he is up to the task.
It is time for collective soul-searching, to think about those things that we can and should change.
For one, is this really the time to spend billions of dollars, violate long-standing treaties, and antagonize our European partners to create an ill-considered defense system that purports to protect us from “rogue nations” with sophisticated nuclear hardware?
The attacks that we saw today weren’t the result of high-tech weaponry. The terrorists’ greatest weapons are their capacity for cold and calculated planning, and their hatred for all things American.
I am trying to wrap my mind around the thinking of anyone who could commit these heinous acts. What could drive a human being, even an insane one, to walk into a school and start shooting random victims, or to commandeer a jumbo jet and crash it into a tower holding thousands of people?
Does being the strongest nation in the world make us the brightest hope for the future, or are we just the biggest bully on the block? Are we a target because of our strength, or our arrogance?
The slogan of the current White House is “compassionate conservatism”, but compassion does not stop at our doorstep. As a nation, we must reach out across the chasm that separates us from those who would see us perish, embrace that which confounds us, and work together to create tolerance and a better life for people everywhere.
Thank you for taking the time to read my words. I hope they do not seem trivial or trite. I leave you now to go spend time with my family, to hold my children, and struggle to explain to them what is happening. Tomorrow, I give blood.