Ten years ago, on that Tuesday morning, I was just barely eleven years old. My few memories of that day are of returning to Ms. DePaul’s fifth grade classroom from lunch and being told that “something terrible had happened in New York City and that we needed to pray.”
I had no idea what the World Trade Center was at that time, but the events were quickly brought a bit closer to home because Ms. DePaul’s family still lived in New Jersey, just across the river from downtown New York. Her father worked in the subways, yet fortuitously, despite the fact that he would have been in the subway station directly beneath the Twin Towers that morning, he was not at work that day.
The rest of the afternoon passed like any other day, though in retrospect, I wonder how the teachers across America managed to make it to the end of the school day while processing the events on a personal level and relaying it to their young charges.
When my mom picked me up that afternoon, I remember lowering the flag at school as I always did with my friend Eli (it was our “job” as Cub Scouts), and while I do not remember my mother being visibly distraught, I also recall her expressing her deep-felt emotion at seeing the American flag flying at the top of the hill of our school as she came to pick us up that afternoon. She explained as best she could what had happened, but I was still woefully unaware of the gravity of the situation.
That night, we attended a vigil mass at our parish, but besides a couple of news reports on television that evening, that is the extent of my recollection of that terrible day.
Ten years later, when I hear people make the remark that the people of my grandparents’ generation always remembered where they were during the attack on Pearl Harbor or that my parents remember what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated, I am frustrated because I do have memories of September 11, but I was still just barely too young to fully appreciate what I was experiencing. I was hovering on the cusp of full cognizance of the world, somewhere between leaving childhood innocence behind and taking on the mental responsibilities of an adult.
Some people might say that it is a blessing to have been young enough not to feel the full shock from the blow our country suffered that morning, not to have watched the horror unfold in front of me on live television, but being consigned to witness the events in retrospect when I was older and more able to comprehend them is painful because in that moment, my country was hurting, and as an American, I was not able to fully hurt with her.
While September 11 was a pivotal date which shaped my life, I have felt its effects more in the years following as I have watched my country go to war both abroad and at home, fighting the forces of terrorism while simultaneously fighting itself in the halls of government and on the airwaves. I have witnessed the great depths to which human nature can sink as I watched men fly passenger jets into skyscrapers full of their fellow men, as I watch Americans defame fellow Americans as they vie for political power, as I study a world tearing itself apart under the constant shadow of terrorist violence.
Yet as I sit here this morning and watch the memorial services on this tenth anniversary of so dark a date, I am moved to tears and inspired by the even more numerous examples of the great heights to which human nature has soared and the light that continues to pierce this present darkness as I see people rise to the challenge of embracing their common humanity and demonstrating heroic love in the face of evil.
We have all heard the stories of the heroes of United Flight 93 and the emergency personnel among the first responders in New York and Washington, and they are rightly lionized. But beyond the immediate heroism surrounding the devastation of that day, I have also witnessed an outpouring of love and goodwill when I hear the stories of the families of the victims and how they have supported each other, or when my host family in France expressed how on that day, “we were all Americans,” or when I have met other students– be they American, Chinese, or Ghanaian, Christian, Muslim, or atheist– who have all expressed a similar sentiment of working toward a better world of good, built on mutual respect for the dignity of human life and cooperation in the midst of strife.
It would be too easy to succumb to despair and see only the destruction evil has wrought, but I say there is hope yet, and I have full faith that we who create and heal and build-up will realise a brighter future which began the moment the first plane struck.
In the readings for this Sunday, the mercy and forgiveness of God are emphasised, and Jesus himself admonishes us to forgive our brother not seven, but seventy-seven times. I do not think it is a coincidence that these readings fell on this anniversary today. As difficult as it is to do, forgiveness, as the ancients have repeatedly told us, is the only sure way to healing. While we will never forget the wound inflicted upon us or the lives lost that day, as a nation, we must forgive even our worst enemies, for in so doing, we rise above our base tendency to retaliate like animals, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence gripping the world, and instead demonstrate that which makes us truly human: our capacity to exercise love in order to overcome a multitude of evils.
On this anniversary, when I feel both deeply saddened by the remembrance of the attacks yet inspired by the good which has come of them, I would conclude my reflections with this élan:
To those who would seek to spread suffering and destruction, you have already lost. By your very actions, you set in motion a tidal wave of goodwill which will consume and efface even the darkest of deeds. We defy you and vow never to rest while such evil menaces all that is right and noble and good.
To those fighting the good fight against the advance of evil in the world, take heart. Know that even when it is not evident, you are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses laboring beside you, and I, for my part, lend my power to do every kind of good to our cause. In the face of great adversity, we have nothing to fear, for we have already overcome evil by our very decision to reject it, and to instead do the good.
And to America, I love you. On this most solemn of anniversaries, I pray that we will cherish and honor those we have lost while we continue to heal from the wounds inflicted upon us. May we advance as a nation only further united by the attempts of our enemies to divide us, and may we continue to serve as a beacon of mercy and justice, of true liberty and freedom, and as a powerful force for good for all peoples of goodwill throughout the world.
We will never forget.
God bless the United States of America