September 11, 2008
Below is the complete text of the Margin notes column I penned in the days following September 11, 2001. This article, "Choking on ashes," ran in the November 2001 issue of U.S. Catholic:
Choking on ashes
Can justice, not retribution, be served in response to America’s worst terrorist attack?
I grew up in a family thick with cops and firemen in a New York suburb peopled by cops and firemen, so it was with a special dread that I watched a churning cloud of dust and debris and choking ash envelope people running for their lives in lower Manhattan on September 11, knowing that a fear that had haunted my childhood would be coming home that night as a terrible reality to hundreds of New York families.
Like millions of others, I watched each terrible development throughout that awful morning in between fruitless attempts to call home. I contacted one brother just as the second tower collapsed, stunning us both into silence. He was frantic and furious and ready to fight somebody, but he and his family were safe. Another brother out of town, a sister and parents at home. One cousin, a firefighter, had checked in to say he was OK on his way to the crash site. Everyone was safe, no one was safe, and a world of suffering was just opening up to my friends and neighbors in New York.
The next morning at the office, I was able to reach my parents. My father, a retired New York firefighter, began to choke telling me that the son of a lifelong friend, a man I had last seen dancing at my wedding in Chicago, was “missing and presumed dead” along with his entire engine company.
Childhood friends who had become cops and firefighters, he couldn’t tell me what happened to them, he hadn’t heard. But four families in my hometown had lost sons and fathers in the building collapse. Suddenly remembering a nephew, a New York City police sergeant, my dad broke off the conversation. He had to call his sister on Long Island to check on his whereabouts.
The call sent me frantically scanning my address book for friends and family anywhere near the city. I called one friend’s office to learn that he was in a meeting. Good, then he was fine. I called another friend and got an answering machine, my anxiety rising before his wife picked up during my half-sobbing message to explain that he was out of harm’s way on business and that everyone in our shared group of friends had been accounted for. Hanging up the phone, I stared down at the address book, simply weeping now, trying to decide who to call next before I finally rose out of my chair to close my office door so my co-workers wouldn’t see what a wreck I had become.
These have been terrible days, and more terrible days may lie ahead. We are eager for justice, ready to strike out, and even the pacifists among us must struggle to restrain a subterranean yearning for violent revenge against such an evil act.
But it is possible in this instance to do worse than no good; it is possible to build the foundation for only more bloodshed. Before we act, we need to be still. We need to understand the anger that compelled these men, men with fathers and friends and brothers and cousins just like me, men who nurtured such hatred that they finally became capable of this appalling gesture of cold-blooded malice.
Otherwise the events of September 11 will one day be remembered as only a wretched footnote in the centuries-old conflict between the Western and the Islamic worlds, a conflict that drives a colorful history but takes us nowhere but to more despair and anguish. The bitter truth—bitter, because retribution beckons our wounded spirit with its false promises—may be that the most rational and practical response to this provocation comes not at the end of a gun but at the end of a handshake.
By the time you read this, our nation may have already begun or completed a retaliation for the terrible suffering of September 11. On that day, I tried to pray, but I was too numb and too defeated to pray. The words would not come to me.
Here is my prayer now:
Lord, we call out for justice. Grant us justice, not revenge. Lord, we have terrible power within our reach; grant us the strength to wield our power with wisdom, with mercy. Help us to comprehend what seems incomprehensible.
Lord, we do not want to see another day like September 11, nor do we wish to condemn our children to relive it; allow us the grace to be the generation to break this cycle of violence, this history of hate. Let us not leave it to our sons and daughters to confront again that awful spectacle of dust and debris and choking ash.