Remembering September 11th: What is the Truth that has been Revealed to Us?
7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
New York, New York
Jean Bethke Elshtain, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the University of Chicago
Fred Dings, the University of South Carolina
E.J. Dionne, Jr., Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the Brookings Institution, Washington Post
James Forbes, Riverside Church
Aasma Khan, Muslims Against Terrorism
John Sexton, New York University
Rabbi Burton Visotzky, Jewish Theological Seminary
John Walton, First Presbyterian Church
JOHN WALTON: Good evening and welcome to First Presbyterian Church. I’m John Walton, pastor at First Church, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you here tonight.
First, I want to express my gratitude to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which has funded and made possible this evening’s program. Without their interest in presenting this important conversation, this evening’s forum would not have taken place. I want to say a special word of thanks to Melissa Rogers, the executive director of The Pew Forum, to Randy Newman, and, in particular, to Staci Waldvogel, who has worked so hard on this project.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life seeks to promote a deeper understanding of how religion shapes the ideas and institutions of American society. The Forum is a non-partisan platform for research and discussion of ideas at the intersection of religion and public affairs. It is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and co-chaired by E.J. Dionne and Jean Bethke Elshtain, two of the speakers this evening.
I also want to express my gratitude to Auburn Theological Seminary. Barbara Wheeler, president of the seminary, is here tonight, as well as Katharine Henderson, vice president of the seminary, and the Reverend Bill Golderer, who has worked on this evening’s program for them. An important part of Auburn’s mission is to encourage interfaith dialogue and understanding through programs of education, such as tonight’s forum. That part of Auburn’s mission has never been more important than in the light of the events that we remember this week.
In an op-ed column in The New York Times today, Susan Sontag suggested that there has been plenty of commentary, and very little reflection, on the meaning of the attacks of September 11th and on our nation’s response to it. On television there have been endless replays of the sights and the sorrows that we endured last year at this time, but precious little considered reflection of how we are to live with what has happened. That is why it is so important to do what we are doing tonight: to gather a distinguished group of people, coming from a number of faith traditions, locations and communities, to give consideration to the question, “Remembering September 11th: What is the truth that has been revealed to us?”
Tonight, some able and thoughtful people are here to lead us in that reflection. In a moment, Dr. John Sexton, president of New York University, will introduce them to you. We would like to ask that you allow this evening’s program to serve as a reflective and meditative event. Each speaker will offer his or her comments regarding the topic, and in the meditative vein, I would ask that you not applaud this evening’s speakers. The last of those to speak will be Fred Dings, who will read his poem “What Saved Us.” We ask that you remain seated and observe a moment of silence following that reading. The speakers will process down the center aisle of the sanctuary, and you may leave following that procession.
I’m sure that your eye cannot miss the remarkable quilt that is before us on the chancel. It contains the names of all those whose lives were lost here in New York and at the Pentagon and on the four planes last September 11th. It is sponsored by Muslims Against Terrorism and is the wonderful creation of a group of women of all faiths, generated, however, by the Muslim community, first, in Los Angeles. Following our program, I hope you will feel free to come forward to see it better.
I would also like to invite you to observe tomorrow with us at First Church. The sanctuary will be open all day beginning at 8:00 for a brief service and prayer every hour on the hour throughout the day. Beginning at 4:30 we will read the names of the seven of this congregational family who perished that day, and then all the others who died. There will be a memorial service of remembrance at 7:00, including the world premier of a new anthem, “Requim Aeternam,” written by composer Stuart Jones, a member of this congregation, and written last October in memory of those who died.
It has been said by many that those of us who live below 14th Street in Manhattan experienced September 11th differently, perhaps more profoundly, than the rest of the city did. The people, the churches, the mosques, synagogues, temples and institutions of Greenwich Village and the communities downtown were profoundly changed as a result of what we experienced, along with the whole city. It seemed important tonight that we should ask a representative of a neighboring institution in the Village, New York University, to be a part of this evening’s program. I’m very grateful that Dr. John Sexton, president of NYU, took the time to be with us to begin the program tonight and introduce our speakers.
DR. JOHN SEXTON: We have an extraordinary group of people, from whom we will receive insights this evening. It has been agreed that the introductions should be sparse, and I’ll honor that, although I could say much about each of them.
E.J. Dionne is one of the great commentators, authors and thinkers of our time, and he shows his commitment to this subject through his work at the Pew Forum. Dr. Jim Forbes, who we hope will be able to join us from his other engagement, is one of the greatest preachers in the world and is senior minister at Riverside Church. Aasma Khan, whose organization brings us this quilt, an organization she founded, is noted for her work on interfaith dialogue. Rabbi Burton Visotzky is synonymous with interfaith dialogue. His work at Jewish Theological Seminary is legendary and was the inspiration for the great public television show, Genesis, a Living Conversation, which has created interfaith dialogue around this country. Jean Bethke Elshtain, an outstanding scholar at the University of Chicago, also shows her dedication to this evening’s topic through her work with the Pew Forum. And Fred Dings will inspire us with his poetry, which has been published in two wonderful volumes.
I’ve been asked to frame the evening, and I thought I would begin to frame it by sharing with you a piece that I wrote a month after September the 11th, when I was asked to describe what this day, September 10th, was like for me last year. You will excuse me if I read from that short piece.
I awoke on Monday, September 10th, knowing I had a special day ahead. Beyond the normal delights of my life at home and at NYU, I was looking forward to lunch at the Four Seasons with Jack Rudin, to getting final approval of the wonderfully ambitious strategic plan for NYU’s medical school at a meeting of the University Committee and to a Yankee game against the Red Sox with my son and two close friends.
Lunch with Jack is always special for me. Two decades ago, when I was just four years out of law school and a newly minted junior professor at NYU, this legendary financial and civic leader adopted me. I don’t know why he did it, but he’s been a friend and mentor ever since, always there with good counsel.
At lunch, Jack and I caught up. We talked about New York and the future of the city and NYU. But then we turned to a subject that weighed heavily on both of our hearts. Jack’s brother, Lew, a great man and one of the leaders who saved New York during the financial crisis of the ’70s, was dying after a long illness. As I left Jack, I called my office and switched my schedule so that I could visit with Lew at his home.
After lunch and another meeting, I walked to the law firm of NYU’s board chair, Marty Lipton, for what, at the time, I thought would be the single-most momentous appointment of my day that day. It was a meeting of the financial affairs committee of the university board. The committee’s agenda called for a review of three months of work on the strategic plan for the medical school. Going into the board meeting, we were confident in the work we had done and that the trustees would endorse the plan. At the meeting, Larry Silverstein, the chairman of that committee, joined the administration in recommending it, and the committee endorsed it.
At 6:00 p.m., as we adjourned the meeting, Larry was even more ebullient than usual, having added this latest act of consensus building to his success just a few months before in obtaining a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center. As he put it, “the dream of a professional lifetime.” It was during the meeting that Larry got word that his previously scheduled meeting the next morning in Tower Two had been cancelled.
Now off to Yankee Stadium and a rendezvous with my son, Jed, and two close friends, Christopher Quackenbush and Leonard Wilf, both trustees of the [NYU] law school. The weather forecast called for rain. “I won’t be there till 8:00,” Lenny had said earlier today, “because that’s when my sources tell me the rain will stop.” Whatever the forecast, however, with Roger Clemens scheduled to dampen the last fading hopes of the hated Red Sox, none of us would take a chance on missing the game.
It did rain long enough for Chris, from his car in the parking lot, to bid successfully at a charity auction for a round of golf with former President Clinton. “I’m bringing my two most conservative friends,” the investment banker said once he got to his seat. Then, at precisely 8:00, just as Lenny arrived, the rain stopped, the skies cleared, and the night was suddenly crisp and beautiful.
As the grounds crew tried for 90 minutes to dry the outfield, we enjoyed stories, debates and, most of all, just being together. At 9:30, the crew gave up. The field was soaked and the game was called. The four of us hugged, and Chris said, “It doesn’t get any better than this. Let’s do this again, often.”
Those were the last words Chris ever spoke to me. Because the game was a washout instead of a 2:00 a.m. special, he was at his desk on the 104th floor of Tower Two when the second plane hit. His 11-year-old daughter would eulogize him saying, “God wants the best.” And his closest friend, Jimmy Dunn, would add, “Chris would want us all to react with charity, not with hate.”
After the plane hit, Larry Silverstein’s lifelong dream literally collapsed. Although he’s been down, this indomitable man remains determined that the dream will be reborn.
The doctors and nurses and staff of NYU’s medical center, whose aspirations for a medical school and hospital were gratified just hours before, heroically stayed their posts in the hours after the attack, at first treating the initial wave of victims and then standing and waiting for a massive influx of survivors which never came.
Jack Rudin’s brother, Lew, died at home on the night that I visited, September 20th, leaving a hole in the heart of New York too big to be covered by one of the Big Apple pins Lew often gave away. Lew wouldn’t be available to help lead New York back this time, but he’d be proud to know of what we were doing.
For the most part, days simply happen, one day after the next, seemingly loosely joined to the previous ones by connections and causalities that are played out one at a time. But the embrace for me between September 10th and the day that followed was fierce. Rarely have I looked back and seen the tapestry of a day so vividly woven to the day before. I wish they had not been, because I really liked September 10th, and I miss it.
As the World Trade Center collapsed, New York, the world’s city, and the world itself stood at a moral turning point. The architects of history’s greatest act of terrorism picked their instruments and their targets with precision to send a message that would instantly reach everyone everywhere in a succession of horrific images. Modern communication conveyed the assault on modern civilization. When the terrorists drove two airliners into the Twin Towers, they sought to meld, in this single act, the reality and the devastation with a symbolic defeat of a notion of humankind that they abhorred.
New York is a city that lives, a vision of progress and inclusion. The terrorists presume they had shattered that vision, but unwittingly they unleashed a moral power surge throughout the city and the world, which affirmed the best of the human spirit, a force equally real and potentially far more powerful than their terrorism. Amid the outpouring of spirit in the days that followed, especially those of us in this community, we were all rescue workers, saving and affirming our humanity.
Tens of thousands of us contributed food, money, sweat and blood. Volunteers in record numbers were frustrated by their inability to do more. We all saw clearly the commitment of our police and firefighters, and we came to view them differently than we’ve ever viewed them before. The whole city operated at this level. We reached out, we comforted, we united.
But that moral surge can fade just as the good feelings that existed after the blackouts faded when the lights came back on. Morally, we cannot allow New York to be less than it was before the terror. Now it has to be even better. And all of us, as individuals and as institutions, have to make it so.
Lower Manhattan will be rebuilt, but in the end, rebuilding structures is not enough. We have to build on the spirit of New York as a permanent affirmation of what the terrorists were really trying to destroy: our values and our moral vision. Each of us has a part to play, but whatever any of us does separately, all of us have to ask what we can do together to sustain and expand this remarkable surge, a surge that we must make happen beyond tomorrow’s anniversary. We’re at a moral crossroads, and we must attend to the moral architecture which the people of New York have been building since the attack.
We are the world’s first city, not just America’s. Today, everyone among us, from every race or faith or nation, is equally a New Yorker. We put our faith in tolerance, not, as the terrorists do, in conforming. That is what has made us great in every dimension of civic success. That is what the murderers tried to kill, and that is what we will restate and celebrate this evening.
E.J. DIONNE, JR.: I had not intended to begin like this, but, as a lifelong fan of those hated Red Sox – I grew up in Massachusetts – I thought I should point out that in the World Series of 2001, I was one of the tens of thousands of Red Sox fans who rooted for the New York Yankees. Only people in this audience who are true baseball fans know how much that meant and how it showed that we really do love New York.
The only truly adequate response to the terrible suffering and all the violence of September 11th is a reverent silence, a sign of respect for those who suffered and who suffer still, and an acknowledgement of the inadequacy of our own words. And it’s therefore fitting that this discussion tonight will end with that moment of silence.
Those of us who speak tonight thus do so with humility, knowing that our words will be terribly imperfect. We feel blessed to be called into solidarity with New Yorkers – I say that as someone who was a New Yorker proudly for seven years – and we were in solidarity in spirit with the families of the victims of the Pentagon attack and of the Pennsylvania plane crash, caused by brave people who gave their own lives to save the lives of others.
In pondering answers to the daunting, and in some ways impossible, question around which this event was organized, I went back to the words I heard in a conversation with a wonderful man named Monsignor Martin Geraghty. Monsignor Geraghty is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Rockaway. And Rockaway, as so many of you know, is a place that suffered grievously on and after September 11th. It’s a place that I love and know well because so much of my wife’s family lives there, and it’s been at the heart of our agony. Firefighters and police officers are as thick on the ground in Rockaway as investment bankers are on the Upper East Side or, I guess I’ve got to say, journalists are on the Upper West Side. Many in the community also worked in the middle levels of the financial industry and perished at the Trade Center.
Monsignor Geraghty is a pastor like your pastor, and he conducts memorial services week after week, sometimes day after day. And then weeks later, that neighborhood suffered again when a plane headed to the Dominican Republic crashed a block away from Monsignor Geraghty’s church and two doors down from the home of one of my brothers-in-law.
This is Monsignor Geraghty’s flock, and no one searched harder for words of comfort and understanding than this good and decent and intelligent man. His response, I thought, was exactly right. He preached, first of all, against the temptation to explain away or cover up our own uncertainties, our confusions and our doubts. “You can deconstruct everything,” Monsignor Geraghty said, “except suffering.” None of us here can try to deconstruct that suffering. We can only, in the words of the philosopher, Glenn Tinder, “try to give and receive help on the road to truth.” And we can help each other, and that’s why we gather tonight.
We might begin by noting Martin Luther King’s insistence that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” The words may sound easy, and yet I think they tell us that human beings have a capacity for both sin and salvation, for acts of inexplicable evil and acts of immeasurable good. September 11th was a day on which we saw both sides of the human condition, of human nature, in acts of horror and heroism, in acts of hatred and solidarity. We know about human sinfulness. The evidence of it is all around us, and yes, within ourselves.
Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous theologian, once said that “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian Church.” Yet Niebuhr warned that if we focused only on the shortcomings of human nature, we would miss what is essential about the human capacity for transcendence. And so he wrote, “A free society prospers best in a moral atmosphere which encourages neither too pessimistic nor too optimistic a view of human nature.” He preached against both “moral sentimentality” and “moral pessimism.”
And so, in the midst of the suffering of September 11th, we saw evidence everywhere of why moral pessimism is not the truth we should we learn from September 11th. It’s worth remembering not only the many acts of heroism that will rightly be celebrated in the course of this week, it’s also worth remembering the spirit of solidarity that existed throughout the nation, and indeed throughout the world. This quilt from the Muslim women of Los Angeles is a visible sign of that solidarity.
I always thought that the very popular question in the days after September 11th – Why do they hate us? – was inadequate, not because there were not people who did indeed hate the United States – we have the awful evidence of that – but because it let down entirely the fact that billions – literally billions – of people around our planet stood that day, not with those who attacked the Towers but with all of us who suffered. Support came from those who had been our political and our diplomatic and, in some cases, our military adversaries. Children in the Third World, who can expect to earn less in their lifetimes than many of us may earn in a week or a month or a year, nonetheless sent what they could to the children of New York City and Washington and those families who lost loved ones in Pennsylvania.
So we must remember one truth from that day and always remember to ask the second question, which is, Why did they stand with us? Not for political reasons, not for reasons of self-interest, but simply because it was right.
We won’t forget September 11th, but we may lose that sense of solidarity. Will we? My kids and I visited a local sports store over the weekend, and this is what we discovered: that the jerseys for Michael Jordan and Ricky Williams and Edgerrin James and a roster of other sports heroes were available at full price. The shirts embroidered with American flags and the words “United We Stand” were on the clearance rack.
Perhaps this fact simply reflects the law of supply and demand in a saturated market. It may be an easy cynicism about the dimming of patriotism and solidarity, but it should not be, because I have a memory that I will be carrying around me all week, a memory of a visit to a different store, a visit my son and I paid to a convenience store off the New Jersey Turnpike this summer. The owner, an immigrant from India, took a liking to my son and gave him a gift – an American flag decal drawn from a pile he had near his cash register. My son insisted that he immediately stick the flag on the bumper of our aging Saturn, and he did.
Now, big changes are documented in small details. Consider: That store would probably not have had that stack of American flags near the register before September 11th, and the gift of a flag could not possibly have meant quite the same thing to my son as it did on that day. The new patriotism – the words I use, the phrase I use without quotation marks – is said to have grown out of our new sense of shared vulnerability. Feelings of victimization crossed every line of race and class, gender and ethnicity, party and ideology, and so even Americans, estranged from patriotic symbols since the days of the Vietnam War, joined their fellow citizens in repairing to Old Glory.
Yet the image of a nation huddled together in fear and resentment does not, I think, do justice to those who died on September 11th or to a new solidarity that is rooted in ideas as well as feelings. One of those ideas is tolerance, as both an American and a universal aspiration. This belief has theological implications. September 11th, I believe, is in part about different views of God – not a difference between Muslims and Christians, or Muslims and Jews, or Christians and Jews, but a difference within all our traditions over whether it is possible to have strong belief and to respect the strong beliefs of others.
“To believe in toleration,” argues Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations in Britain, “is to believe” – and I quote him – “that God is greater than religion. What would such a faith be like,” Rabbi Sacks asked at a lecture this summer. “It would be like being secure in my own home and yet moved by the beauty of a foreign place, knowing that while it is not my home, it is still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be knowing that we are sentences in the story of our people, but that there are other stories, each written by God out of the letters of lives bound together in community.”
It is not only possible, but I believe essential, that those who believe that their faith is true insist upon the dignity of members of other religious communities and of those who have no faith at all, of all of God’s children. To do so is to insist upon freedom and to oppose the tyranny of intolerance, a new fascism.
Now, my sports store is right, of course, to acknowledge on its clearance rack that we look less united than we did a year ago. The very freedom we celebrate guarantees dissent, against the possible war with Iraq, for example, or against Justice Department decisions curbing individual liberties. But we are carrying out our arguments in a new, or perhaps very old, spirit that no longer automatically suspects patriotism as “the last refuge of scoundrels.” The millions of flags and the million of bumpers and buildings represents a sheer commitment, not just to our country, but to the ideas of tolerance, liberty and mutual assistance that emanate from our country. We should feel a terrible remorse that it took the deaths of 3,000 innocent people to teach us these lessons anew.
I want to close by asking what may seem an odd question: Was religion the cause of the horrific events that engulfed our nation on September 11th, or was it the solution? Following the terrorist attacks there was an immediate inclination to blame what happened on religion. Only true believers, filled with the hope that God would reward them with immediate entry into Paradise, could possibly be inspired to destroy their own lives and those of so many innocents. Yet if many Americans saw this tragedy as rooted in a perverse religious impulse, our own response was religious as well. We poured into churches and synagogues and mosques to ask God’s consolation or help.
Now, are we talking here about different gods or different illusions? I think we can begin by dispensing with the obvious. Every government and every political cause will invoke the divine whenever doing so is convenient. This, you might say, is not God’s fault, but our own. To assume that religious opportunism invalidates faith is the same as assuming that political opportunism invalidates democracy, or that cheaters invalidate all market transactions. If faith is reduced to its uses and misuses, a profound skepticism is inevitable. But does this describe faith?
I posed this question to my friend, Monsignor Geraghty. I asked him if religious commitment can be too fanatical and border on irrational acts. He replied candidly, “It does happen, it has happened, but it’s not what faith and religious commitment and an understanding of God and the world is all about.” We can end up with fanatics. What could we say about fanaticism? “Many things,” Monsignor Geraghty said. “It’s even been known to happen in sports once in awhile.”
Now, religious faith cannot be supported just because it brings comfort in moments of anguish, neither can it be discredited by the horrid acts committed in its name. Faith is brought down by a pridefulness that expresses an unwavering conviction that our own desires and interests – our own personal political or national causes -coincide perfectly with those of the divine. Faith is more credible when it stands as a challenge, a challenge to our own political movements, communities and nation. The prayers of this faith do not express certainty that God is on our side; only the hope that this might one day prove to be true through our actions.
And we honor those who perished on September 11th because they acted in that spirit. My friend, Peter Steinfels, wrote recently in The New York Times, asking the question, “Where was God on September 11th?” He cited Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury, who was struck by the last words of the victims in the towers conveyed to loved ones, as we all know, through cell phones and answering machines. As Steinfels pointed out, those farewell messages did not use religious language, yet the non-religious words of the workers trapped in the towers, as Archbishop Williams said, testified to what religious language is supposed to be about: the trying of pointless, gratuitous love; the affirmation of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.
We might best honor those we remember tonight, not just by reaffirming our nation’s commitment to toleration and liberty, but by pledging ourselves to their spirit of faithfulness to that pointless, gratuitous love.
DR. JAMES FORBES: “Remembering September 11th: What is the truth that has been revealed to us?” In the light of 9/11, even the theme of this evening’s panel requires clarification. First of all, what is the truth? If we write it, should it be written in upper case? After all, there are various faith perspectives, competing ideologies, patterns of thought and modes of expression. One almost needs to say, “In my humble opinion, the truth is …” And even after saying that, the tone in which one expresses one’s humble opinion about what truth is must manifest itself in the spirit of the discourse. That’s one thing I guess has been revealed. Never again can anyone, with openness and sophistication and balance and awareness of the world, write truth all uppercase, T-R-U-T-H, as if that could not be challenged by somebody else.
So, what do we mean by revealed in the light of 9/11? For theologically inclined persons, there is the sense that what cannot be known by mere observation or reason is somehow upstaged by a transcendent being who manages to break through the portals of incomprehensibility to disclose truth, in the lowercase or uppercase, wisdom or information which can only be discerned by those whose spiritual discipline has prepared them to be a recipient of this divinely imparted knowledge.
So, revealed? After 9/11, there is great debate here and there, is there someone up there revealing, or is a more appropriate term discerned or opined, whatever? Nine-eleven makes it not so clear that we would be together in the language of revelation: God showed us this out of that. One walks with some humility in such calamities.
And then, what’s the truth that has been revealed to us? Who is the us? If there was ever an obvious meaning of us, it is no more. There are clashes, not only of civilizations, but caucuses and cultures and races and classes and, again, ideologies where people are not included in general in the us, but who want to be included or who are ready to fight to be included and don’t want to be ignored. And some, as we found in the case of the terrorists, are saying, in regards to the good parts of life, if we are not included in the us, then there will be no us at all, hence the destruction, the terror, the horror, the mass murder.
Nine-eleven makes it even difficult to get into the topic, since you have to spend a little more time even defining what you mean when you get started. But I thought, since we have four other panelists here, that maybe the best way to get into this topic with appropriate humility about what truth is, and not too strong a claim that God told me so, but maybe an invitation to discover whether what I list as maybe nine or 11 basic points -whether there are enough “us-es” here to say, Yeah, that makes sense on the eve of the commemoration of that awful day.
So, what is on my list? I think the first thing that was revealed – or discerned, or suggested – comes from Native-American spirituality, and Chief Seattle, who had it about right, I think. “This we know: All things are connected, like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons (and daughters) of the Earth. Mankind did not weave the web of life. He (or she) is merely a strand in it. Whatever one does to the web, one does it to oneself.” That’s one truth.
The second truth I think revealed – and I think the earlier panelist suggested this – whatever else I might say in my more critical moments, I must acknowledge that somewhere deep in the American psyche is the impulse to pray. I did not assume that all of the singing of the various selections of “God Bless America” was simply a jingoistic reversion to a safety blanket with a musical flair. No, I think we have somewhere stored down there – it may not come out every Thursday or Friday or Saturday or Sunday, but somewhere there is an impulse that there’s somebody we can call on in the hour of need. “God Bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night” – of which we had an extended North Pole night – “with the light from above.” I think that there could be a critique of how sustained the mood of prayer is, but prayer is somewhere in there.
Another truth: Although we pray, how slowly we learn that dialogue does not consist of asking the question; it is an earnest desire to hear an answer. I want to ask you: Have you really heard a serious listening to the question: Why do they hate us so? (Long pause) It has interrogative form, but I am not so sure that it has inquiring intent regarding how we are viewed. Does it really matter how we are viewed? And if it does, when will we have satisfied ourselves that we asked this question, and in humility we interviewed people around the world, and at last the snapshot of our face has finally been developed and we see how we are viewed? Nine-eleven, a truth was revealed when we asked, why do they hate us so? It is a lamentation of the fact that we should not be loved by others as much as we seem to love ourselves.
I think 9/11 has revealed that we as a people are not accustomed to having to ask that question and to wait and to listen and not be prepared to move on with business as usual until we have heard it. Nine-eleven reveals that it is not a characteristic question that we seriously ask, but it may be revealing. It is a question, in a globalized age, that all nations will have to ask. It matters how other folks see us. How slowly we learn.
If we ask that question in earnest, it would be affecting the nature of our conversation about both the generalized war against terrorism and, in particular, intentions with respect to Iraq, and other nations in the axis of evil. It could be possible that 9/11 was suggesting that before we go to war again, we need an answer to the question, and that the war should be waged informed by an intelligent understanding of the answer and its implications for how we do foreign policy, and domestic planning as well.
Nine-eleven, I think, revealed to us the truth that the prophetic edge of American conscience has been dulled, that that side of American wisdom may have either been co-opted or even silenced. I think 9/11 might suggest to people who can hear that even in our nation, since the us of America is not all that obvious, that maybe our leaders will consider it evidence of statesmanship, before they go to war, to make sure they have had dialogue with the wisest proponents of diplomatic approaches in the pursuit of peace. Well, several others hope it might happen here.
I think 9/11 taught us that the human body knows how to adjust, knows how to find a new level of holiness after the imbalancing. The human body – God knows if we had not been so wisely constructed, so wonderfully and fearfully made, I don’t know whether we would have made it through. But God made us so we can run and reel, and stumble, and fall, and grieve, and lament, and doubt, and fear and yet come up with strength to press on. Thank God for this wonderful and fearfully contrived body that knows how to correct itself.
I think 9/11 probably also taught us – I say this very briefly since it does not really need explanation – that peace and justice are Siamese twins. There are international implications of that, and there are also domestic and national implications. Oh, grant us the capacity to hear and act upon that truth.
And I think, coming on down, there are two other things I should say.
This is theological. The devil has always been able to use difference as a source of disruption, division, mistrusting and violence. It doesn’t matter whether it is difference of religion or of race or of class, 9/11 seems to say the devil works hard to find a way to cause difference to be the occasion of mass destruction, which suggests that maybe we could take an opposite tack and to consult God and see that difference may open the promise of being in conversation with the gods.
Well, how do I close my words? Well, with one word that I am more convinced of than ever, and this is the way I see it. After considering all that 9/11 showed us, I prayed, and this is the answer which was revealed to me. Whether you are black or white, or rich or poor, or Muslim or Jewish; whether you are Pakistani, Afghani, Saudi or Indian – and I really listened to God, fully aware of the nature of this issue, aware of geopolitical dynamics; and I really listened to God as an American – this is what I heard God say to me, and I think it may appeal to all of us: Love my children; that’s all I ask of you. Love my children; it’s the least that you could do. If you love them as I love them, we shall see them safely through. Love yourself, love me too. And whatever else you do, love my children.
AASMA KHAN: I want to start by saying as-salam alaikum. I am feeling a little green, to be quite honest, hearing the wisdom already shared. And when Bill Golderer from Auburn Seminary called me and said, “You know, Aasma, we want to hear some words of wisdom from you,” I was a little overwhelmed that anyone would think that I had words of wisdom to share, because I’m still trying to make sense of 9/11. I am reeling emotionally and religiously because I’m a Muslim. I left corporate law to found Muslims Against Terrorism, to reclaim my religion from those who preach hatred and intolerance in the name of Islam.
God teaches Muslims: Say you believe in Isaac and Ismael and Jacob and Moses and the tribes of Israel, and the books that were revealed to Moses, and Jesus, because we believe in all the prophets that have come before us. And the Koran speaks to Jews and Christians as People of the Book.
So the travesty of 9/11 speaks against everything I believe, and that Muslims did that heinous act — And I, along with 12 other people, co-founded the organization to teach about Islam, to undermine messages of hate given to the name of this religion. Those were acts of terror, and they do not belong to the religion of Islam.
Through my work at Muslims Against Terrorism I’ve come into contact with people from many walks of life, and they have actually been in a position to teach me. When I went to the Beth El Temple in Long Island a couple of weeks afterwards, one of the members of the temple called me and chatted. And she said, “Aasma, I feel so alone. Sometimes I sit at night and I cry for all the people who the world has lost in this injustice, and for the peace and suffering that other people are going to endure in the war against terrorism. We need you to share Islam with us, and no matter what anybody says to you, keep going.” She said, “You give me hope for peace, even though I can’t see it.” I’m sorry – I’m trying to get better at public speaking, but I still seem to get emotional.
This summer, I went to speak at a large national Muslim conference, because at Muslims Against Terrorism we also believe that not only do we need to talk to non-Muslims about what the religion of Islam teaches, we need to be talking to Muslims as well. At the end of my lecture, in which I talked about what the Koran teaches, about the respect for People of the Book, about how God has asked us as Muslims to stand up for justice, “even as against yourselves, your kith, your kin, against rich or poor, and let not the creakings of your heart sway you.”
And one man said to me, as I talked about the problems in the Muslim community of gender exclusion, of the fact that we pray in ethnically divergent mosques – African-Americans separate from the Arabs, separate from the South Asians – and that this troubled me as a Muslim, because Islam teaches us equality – he said to me, almost implicit in his tone, “Little girl” – well, he didn’t say, little girl, but it was there – “Why are you being critical of Muslims and pointing out our problems about gender exclusion or ethnic isolation publicly? You hurt Islam by doing that.”
And I responded to my elder, We need to discuss our problems in an open and self-critical way. Through this way we will find our way to the true light of our religion, that teaches us equality for all, including women. And the best of us, Islam teaches us, who are closest to God are those who do good deeds. And the Koran repeatedly counsels us, to each of you – meaning those of you who have been given a different religion – “to each of you I have prescribed an open way.” And the reason God says that is because He wants us to compete in doing good deeds, not in debating who has the right religion.
So I told him, I said, let us compete in doing good deeds. Let us show what we as Muslims are because that is what God asks us to do. And in embracing that identity we not only embrace our identity as Muslims, we embrace our identity as Americans because this is so fundamental to our identity in this country, to embrace people who are different from you and to find your common foundations.
And I have to say, the majority of the room – well, actually, except for maybe him – broke out in applause, which means that somewhere along – what I’m saying resonates in Muslim hearts also. This isn’t just an American ideal; this is a Muslim ideal, this is an Islamic ideal.
Now, a couple of weeks ago I also had the privilege of speaking at Saint Mark’s Church, and I met an Armenian woman whose family was slaughtered by Turks during Ottoman rule. And I can’t tell you how devastated I was and moved by her loss. And I was talking to her about the very parts of the Koran that I’ve spoken to you about, about the People of the Book, and how Christians and Jews are to be given the ultimate respect. And in times of intolerance, Jews fled Spain and came to Ottoman-controlled areas where they were given refuge. And she said to me, “Well, my family was slaughtered. Is this Islam?” And I explained to her that Muslims have fought wars in history that are un-Islamic. That’s not part of the religion.
I’m unfamiliar with all the wars in history that have been fought by Muslims, but Islam does not condone the taking of innocent human lives. The Koran teaches us that if you take the life of one person, if it’s an innocent person, it is as if you have taken the life of all of humanity. No religion condones wholesale slaughter of the innocent.
I didn’t think I could bring her any comfort, and I was at a loss for words other than to draw upon what the Koran teaches me as to how to comfort her. But she came up to me afterwards, and she hugged me with tears in her eyes, and she said to me, like a mother would, “I’m proud of you.” And she actually comforted me, because I was feeling at a loss for acts that other Muslims had committed throughout history, and somehow I was sitting there feeling responsible.
Feeling the compassion from others who have experienced loss, and all these different people – Jewish, Armenian, Christian, many others – I couldn’t even name to you all of the people who have spoken to me in this last year as I have gone out to teach about Islam. This is truly the best of what we are as Americans. It renews my belief that America will always find its strength in embracing its diversity, whether ethnic, religious or racial. And I believe it’s something that we’re more open to after 9/11. We’ve opened doors in our minds and in our hearts that we have kept locked against “the other.” And we have found comfort and compassion and love for each other as Americans that are Christian or Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, black, white or brown, and that gives me hope.
My work every day shows me that we average Americans are reaching out to each other, despite color, ethnicity or faith, to grieve, to comfort, and, in our diverse backgrounds, find hope that we can face the future, united in a vision of peace and understanding, as hands join and tears mingle.
The quilt is representative of this. The quilt, although initiated by women of the Muslim-American community in Los Angeles, was an interfaith effort; two weeks of sewing day and night so that they could send something to New York from L.A. that says, We remember you and we grieve with you, and your lost loved ones are remembered by all of us.
And somehow this leveling loss of life, this devastation, has brought us all together. And as we stand together and we worship together and we grieve together, we have to be cautious of the blind hatred that exists in pockets of our country, where Muslims or Arab-Americans or anyone brown is attacked. Three weeks ago, a young girl, a teenager, was raped in Palo Alto, California. And as she was raped, religious slurs were hurled upon her. A mother and son in Long Island were severely beaten. And in Florida a man planted bombs in mosques. And a woman wearing the hijab, shopping for groceries, had her credit card thrown in her face, and the clerk said, “Go back to where you came from,” even though she was born and raised here.
This type of hysterical hatred will not help us fight the war against terrorism. This blind hatred will lead to a spiral of violence that I believe will eat us from the inside, until we are shells of the human beings that we should be. And I think that, as Mr. Forbes was saying, we need to hold onto the love, the compassion that we have found for each other in our grief. What the loss of the Towers has represented to us, we can’t let go of that and hate blindly. We have to learn and we have to understand, and I think that the Muslim community, the Muslim-American community, and every other community has much to learn through sharing and dialogue.
And if I was to say one thing to be my truth – lower case – it would be that we need to keep learning, we need to keep sharing, we need to keep open minds, because the minute we stop doing that, it makes a massive space for hate to fill, because what we don’t understand, what we fear, leads to hatred. And right now, that thing happens to be Islam, and the victims of that are Muslim-Americans.
And so I hope that when you encounter that kind of hatred – and it doesn’t have to be against Muslim-Americans, it could be against African-Americans, it could be any type of ignorance-based hate – I would ask you to learn something about the subject before you venture forth an opinion, so that you come from a point of understanding. I always find that from understanding, you get compassion. And it’s in our compassion and our empathy and the way we grieve together, and it was the compassion felt around the globe for the loss of life felt here in New York City, that allows us all to stand together. And so if we’re going to really give meaning to the words, “united we stand,” then let’s extend each other compassion every day.
RABBI BURTON VISOTZKY: What truth has been revealed to us? I feel like I have a dangerous assignment: I’m the fifth speaker in a long evening, and it is the season of the Jewish high holidays, and I am a rabbi about to speak and have been asked to limit myself to 12 minutes. I confess it’s hard enough for me to be restrained from saying, Will the congregation please rise. (Laughter.)
What truth has been revealed to us? In order for me to get to that truth, I want to work backward from today, September 10th, 2002, to September 11th of last year and before. I want to do so in the form of a brief litany, or more accurately, a threnody.
On July 31, 2002, just five-and-a-half weeks ago, the scene is a university cafeteria. Students from all over the world are drinking tea and muddy coffee – they don’t have a Starbucks yet. They chat among themselves with special animation. They’re college-age and older, and they’re all colors of the rainbow. They are Christians, Muslims and Jews. The scene could be just a few blocks from here at John’s NYU. But as it happens, the scene was at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The cafeteria there is a well-known refuge, a place where Jews and Arabs actually still could talk with one another. And then the bomb goes off. In the end, nine dead, 70 or more wounded. Among the dead, five Americans; among the wounded, Arabs, Jews, Koreans.
For the next date in litany we can pick almost any previous week of the past two years. Let’s say the scene is in the crowded fruit and vegetable market at Mahane Yehuda. It’s Friday afternoon and everyone is jostling to get their Shabbat shopping finished. And then the bomb goes off: countless dead and wounded. In the eerie calm afterward, the medics, and those determined to see that each corpse has a proper burial, go numbly yet methodically about their work. It’s not the first time a bomb has gone of in Mahane Yehuda.
I buy my sandals in a little store off Ben Yehuda Street in the pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem – at least I used to. Six months ago, that store was just opening for the day when the bomb went off. It was the seventh time there had been a bombing in that part of Jerusalem.
On another afternoon, on a nearby corner, moms and kids are grabbing pizza at Sbarro’s. They drink their Cokes and Fantas, chew their slices or wolf them down – and then the bomb goes off.
Over the past two years, almost 700 Israelis have been killed and another 2,000 Palestinians have died. In the battle for the Middle East, the corpses pile up, seemingly without number.
A year ago, I walked into my office one Tuesday morning to have a colleague across the hall stick his head in to tell me that he had heard that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center – and then a second plane. And then first one tower, and then the second, fell. In a short couple of hours, the number of dead exceeded the Middle East’s tragic toll.
What is the truth that has been revealed to us since September 11th? For me, as a rabbi in this holiday season, the truth is this: We all live in Jerusalem now. In deference to my colleagues here, I must be clear: It’s not important to me that Jerusalem be Yerushalayim, Ir HaKodesh, the Jewish holy city, or Al-Kuds, the Muslim holy city, or Hierosolym, the Christian holy city. What is important is that our City on the Hill has been attacked by those who seek to harm us. They wage war against us, not because we are soldiers but because we are citizens – all of us, citizens of Jerusalem. When the very potent symbols of civilization, be they the Twin Towers or the Aksa Mosque or the Patriarchs’ graves – when sites, both sacred and profane, when buildings dedicated to God and mammon become targets of raging madmen who wish our destruction, well, then, we all live in Jerusalem.
In many Jewish communities it is the custom at this time of year to recite a cycle of psalms, the Shir HaMa’alot psalms, the songs which the Levites sang on the steps of the ancient Temple. They begin with Psalm 120, Shir HaMa’alot, A Psalm of the Stairs: “In my distress, I called to the Lord, and God answered me.” Psalm 121, Shir LaMa’alot, A Song of the Stairs: “I turn my eyes to the mountains. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of Heaven and Earth.” Psalm 122, Shir HaMa’alot, a Psalm of the Stairs: “Our feet stood at your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built like a city twinned together… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for quietude for those who love her. For the sake of my family and friends, I speak about her peace. For the sake of the House of God, I ask for her to know goodness.”
In fact, in this Jerusalem that encompasses New York City and the Pentagon, and a barren field in Pennsylvania, we have known goodness. In the midst of unconscionable tragedy, we have witnessed acts of heroism and goodness that encompass the mythic vision of that Jerusalem we all yearn for. Just after the planes hit the Trade Center, New York’s firefighters ran into the inferno to battle the blaze and help victims leave. Shir HaMa’alot, a Psalm of the Stairs, 110 flights in each tower that led so many of the fortunate to their safety.
And let us add a psalm of thanksgiving for the iron and steel workers who volunteered to witness unspeakable horrors as they handed beams, one man to the next, to try and save whomever might have survived the wreckage. Let us sing a psalm for the thousands of New Yorkers who brought water, sandwiches, dry socks and underpants to the rescue teams; for the Xerox stores that graciously duplicated thousands upon thousands of pages to help loved ones find their missing; for people worldwide – Jews, Christians, Muslims – who donated their blood for the wounded. Let us sing the psalm of thanksgiving for sheer humanity.
We all live in that City on the Hill – New York, Washington, Jerusalem, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Kandahar. We stand together as united humanity, and we shudder together as we repeat Conrad’s terrible words, “The horror, the horror.” But after Conrad’s words vanish into the quiet, the words of the prophet Isaiah fill the void: “Proclaim a year of God’s favor. Give comfort to the mourners. Rebuild the ruins. Raise up the desolation.” Isaiah continues by asking, “Who of us can live with the devouring fire? Who of us can dwell in the endless blaze? Where is the one who can pounce? Where is the one who can count the towers?” And Isaiah has a vision of Jerusalem: “May your eyes behold Jerusalem as a secure homeland and unflappable dwelling. Raise a shout together, O ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord will comfort his people. God will redeem Jerusalem.”
Here is the truth that has been revealed: We all live in Jerusalem. It is a Jerusalem of the spirit. It is New York City. It is Jerusalem. It is Bethlehem. It is Jericho. It is Kabul. I close with a verse from the psalm we Jews say morning and evening in this Season of Awe. “Hope in the Lord. Be strong and courageous. Hope in the Lord.” Let us pray for the peace of our Jerusalem. Let us pray for the peace of New York.
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: I know it’s terribly warm, and I thank you for listening so patiently to all the words you’ve heard up to this point. Unsurprisingly, we are striking many similar themes within our own frames of reference.
Let me begin in this way: T.S. Elliot, in the poem “East Coker,” writes, “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older the world becomes strange, the pattern more complicated of dead and living.” On September 11, 2001, the pattern of dead and living grew more complicated, not as a result of the inevitability of old age and death and the complexity of life’s interweavings and gains and losses, the expectations we have of the course of life, but rather through an act of violence that wrenched and destroyed, tearing through the tissue of dead and living. Yes, the world became stranger and more hostile, more frightening, yet more extraordinary and hopeful too.
To say that events of that day shook us profoundly is to understate. Did they change us? Are we weaving new patterns? That remains to be seen. Perhaps it is the Augustinian strain in my thinking that tells me we ought not expect too much. There is a tendency in human life, as my mother taught me when I was a child, to backslide. Our wheels are weak. The terrible truth may be too much to bear. Still, we are asked to grapple with the question that you’ve now heard over and over, What is the truth that has been revealed to us? Let me answer in my own way.
First, that we had grown complacent about our way of life. True, we accepted that we might not see record growths in the stock market or our mutual fund accounts for a quarter or two. That we had anticipated. The economy was on a downturn before September 11th. We were convinced, however, that things would move along unchanged and uninterrupted for the most part. Then our complacency was shattered in a most horrific way.
What emerged and emerges yet from the rubble of ground zero may – may – be a keen awareness of our human finitude and our inability to control events perfectly. We may – may – as a result, feel more grateful for the very ordinariness of things: the sun rising and setting; the first sleepy yawn of the morning, the last of night; a baby’s cry rousing us from sleep; the slow rhythm of a child’s chest rising and falling as she slumbers; the hand of a loved one on the small of one’s back; the extraordinary predictability of our politics, with its regular election cycles through war and scandal and tragedy; movements large and small; the punctuation points of life lived amidst a level of civic peace our forebears could scarcely dream of.
And then, September 11th. Perhaps we have replaced complacency with gratitude. These are profoundly different attitudes. Complacency permits us to take things for granted without thinking of them. Gratitude compels us to recognize each and every day and to be profoundly grateful for life itself and life’s simple pleasures: a passing smile, a pleasant greeting, a friend’s reassuring voice over the phone.
Second, we have forgotten, or many of us had, what it meant to be a neighbor and to be a citizen. Perhaps we weren’t called upon that frequently as neighbors because we were too busy rushing to and fro to tend to neighborliness, whether as one who offers help or one who accepts help proffered. For to accept and to offer help acknowledges that we need one another. We have been enjoying for years seeing ourselves as little sovereigns in our own domains. Sovereign selves neither need nor solicit help. No one was sovereign on September 11th.
We were reminded that we are soft-shelled creatures. We were confronted with the horror of last moments, when men and women, our fellow citizens, our neighbors, faced, in many cases, an agonizing final choice of how to die, not whether or not to die, as they plummeted to earth like broken birds knowing that rescue would never come. We bore witness as men and women, our fellow citizens, our neighbors, rushed into the inferno to try to spare others, at sure and certain risk of their own lives. We were aghast and we were astonished. We were horrified and we were grateful. Such a tumble of emotions and recognitions. Yes, the pattern has grown more complicated of dead and living.
A truth was revealed to us: the truth of citizenship and of the civic affections that bind us one to the other. Given our widely shared conviction before September 11th that politics was either sordid or boring or both, perhaps it made good self-interested sense to ignore it and to adopt a cynical attitude toward any notion of civic duty or responsibility. We paid scant attention to those among us charged with the public responsibility of keeping us safe and secure in our homes, our schools, our places of worship and work and our neighborhoods. No more. That awareness is now seared into our collective consciousness. The results may – may – be a perjuring awareness of the fact that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and that politics, however imperfectly, is forged in part on the anvil of that recognition.
We are not called to be heroes every day, but some may be called. September 11th demonstrated that. We are, however, called to honor our bonds of civic affection. A terrible tragedy effaces distinctions, as you’ve already heard, of race and religion and ethnicity and economic status. The window washer and the stockbroker found themselves in the same boat. They were terrified, they were threatened, and they leaned on one another. This was an attack on America, and because New York City is in so many ways a microcosm, not only of America but of the world, it was an attack on humanity.
Before September 11th, Americans from Main Street in Iowa or Nebraska and Americas from 5th Avenue in New York City seemed separated by a huge gulf. No more. The pattern has become more complex through a wrenching act that also simplified. We knew at the moment, Yes, we are all Americans. We knew at that moment, Yes, we are all neighbors. We knew at that moment, Yes, we are all citizens or would-be citizens. We rightly honored our much-derided politicians as they rose to the occasion. We were grateful to recognize that, as a friend of mine put it, there are adults in charge when our world is wounded and shocked.
Does that mean we will henceforth put our shoulders to the civic wheel, that we will insist that schools take up what used to be called civics in their curriculum, that they will teach us the importance of forging bonds of civic affection? We will see. But we cannot pretend that the stakes are so low it scarcely matters. The threat remains. Vigilance is required. We task certain persons with that responsibility. We may well disagree with this policy or that, but in America, we debate those matters. And we should never treat the vocation of politics with cynicism and contempt for many reasons, in part because history teaches us some mortal lessons, not least among these the fact that terrible wounds to body and spirit may corrode the fabric of political life rather than enhance and ennoble it.
Will the goodness we saw in the wake of the attacks having staying power? Let us hope. That means we must tend explicitly to how things are going with us, even as the memories of September 11th fade, as they inevitably, and mercifully, must and will. What must not fade, however, as the world became stranger, as routine expectations were shattered, as we recognized just how complex, indeed, is the pattern of dead and living. None of the goods human beings cherish can flourish, absent a measure of civic peace and security. Those who plot in secret, who operate stealthily and who knowingly target civilians for destruction en masse, perpetrate harm well beyond an immediate violent event. They would force good into hiding. That is the plan: to drive people behind closed doors.
The good I have in mind is one that you live every day, the simple but profound good, that as men and women going to work, citizens of a great city making their way on streets and subways, ordinary people buying airplane tickets in order to visit the grandchildren or to take a vacation, men and women offering to transact business with colleagues in other cities, the faithful attending their churches and synagogues and mosques without fear. Make no mistake about it: This Potidaean ideal is a great good. The truth that was revealed to us is that we have but one life to live with and among one another. How are we to live it, recalling each and every day just how fragile it all is?
In the wake of the attacks, some critics and analysts turned their attention to the World Trade Center towers as great symbols of power. They are – they were – about that. They were emblematic of the combined power of many individual men and women. But they were also about freedom and ingenuity and the combining of beauty with function. Perhaps we shouldn’t aim so high, but there is something exhilarating about reaching for the stars. Totalitarian regimes do not aim high. They build squat prisons. They build blockhouses. They keep people low to the ground, the easier to round them up and to kill them. Those who attacked us not only wanted to harm as many of us as possible; they wanted to sow fear. This is their cradle, to watch us hide. But the truth revealed to us is that hiding won’t do. We cannot love one another, we cannot give and receive neighborliness, we cannot enact projects of citizenship if we are locked indoors and afraid to venture forth.
A great theological virtue in my tradition is hope. Hope is also a civic virtue, one tied to coming to grips with the reality one faces and responding appropriately, without excess sentimentality on the one hand or excessive pessimism on the other. So we must respond to stop those who would harm us, and we must respond in order to meet and to greet one another, to love one another. Home may be where we start from, but it is also where we end our journey, the home that was those final phone calls, because home is where our affections tend. May those affections bind us to one another and help to make less brutal and more just, our world.
FRED DINGS: Good evening. Thank you for coming. In times of great pain, any words spoken are a compromise between the pressure to say something and the pressure to say nothing. I will begin with a poem that was written before last September 11th about someone left to starve to death by someone else who hungered after power.
I do not speak of certain things.
All talk could be the scuffed air
we shovel over the dead. Sometimes
the air is the grave on which no words
will tread, and language stands speechless
on the edge, vivid with silence.
But sometimes words are the only hands
we have to touch a bruised memory
or cleanse a wound that never healed
or lift a body we’ve carried for years
at last to the pyre of shared grief.
I remember a dying girl lying
curled in dust, flies on her lips
and eyes, her swollen belly pregnant
with death. I remember her soft struggling
breath and the hum of flies in the quiet heat.
Of all the images crowded within the horror of last September, what chills me the most even now is the image of those who jumped from the towers, who, rather than burn alive, chose to plummet a thousand feet to crush on the pavement below while the world witnessed their final, terrible loneliness.
We are asking tonight what truths we can learn from this. And we are asking how we can live and act in the aftermath of this event. It is the continued tragedy of humankind that last September is but the most recent example of an old and terrible condition of our collective spirituality: That is, the widespread intolerance of the differences of others and a disregard for their rights, feelings and even lives. What Nietzsche called the “will to power” has once again used coercion instead of persuasion, and violence instead of compassion, to assert one vision of the world over all other visions. It is also not new that this will to overpower others has wrapped itself in righteousness.
The bloody history of humankind serves us with myriad examples, and daily life is rife with the little sadisms of self-assertion. We have just emerged from a century where competing ideologies have soaked the earth with the blood of millions of human beings to serve the good intentions of an asserted world vision. Such evil acts, even in the deluded cause of permanent good, can never be justified. The unlearned lessons of the past lie before us right now.
Our technologies and economies have brought us physically closer together than ever before. We are in the same room now, and we must live together, all of us. The community of humankind must now be our community, nothing less. Every act of violence and coercion re-infects our collective spiritual life with pain, fear, anger and resentment. And the fate of humankind will be to perpetually re-infect itself unless we learn to counter the will to power with the will to love – an active, determined intention to love, to include all others in our affections.
We are at war now, and we must defend ourselves. We must not be naïve; there are people among us who are plotting our deaths. But in defending ourselves, let us manifest and enact the best of our democratic vision, causing no harm to innocents while protecting our right to exist. Let’s also remember the importance of our daily lives, the little things we do that no one else may ever know about, but which build and express our character and add to the character of the world.
I will end now with a poem that was written last November in the light of our shared grief. In the midst of such huge driving forces, little things seemed more important than ever.
What saves us?
It’s the little things that pierce, sometimes,
the points of pain, numerous as gnats
that we label symptomatically so we can turn
our backs to live. Each one could claim us
entirely, if we let it, until a sea
of tiny hands would pull us down to grief.
And so, the kitten crushed in rushing traffic
as it crossed towards its mother must not matter
more than we can bear, more than one
more flake in the drifts of darkness, more
than one more cell in the body of despair.
Besides, we were helpless to help and all
had somewhere to get to, some other side,
here, in this wincingly beautiful world
where innocence is the briefest flower on earth.
It’s the little things that save us sometimes,
in the season of aftermath, after birds
have filled the autumn skies like dark notes
in the music of departure, after they have streamed
away and long tapers of grief and pain’s
unspeakable magnitudes have left us mute
as mown fields filled with snow, mute
as the snow itself falling like ash through leafless
branches, like sand through outstretched hands.
The list of bitter things that’s now a ponderous book
that none of us can lift.
There are those
who have unwounded faith in something greater,
something waiting on the other side
and calling with the warmth we all felt
once when the world was whole,
and there are those
for whom it may take years or forever
for the felt life to assemble into belief.
It’s the little things that save us, sometimes, in our
There’s a tenderness inside us that persists
At cross purposes to our driven days
and the scar of thickened skin we live within.
It reaches through our barricades to gather
the points of kindness and of joy we find
scattered through our lives like grain, the grains
of light by which our darkened world can live.