Day of Recollection: U.S. Catholic readers share thoughts on 9/11

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A decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, U.S. CATHOLIC readers share their memories, regrets, concerns, and hopes. 

When Mary Ellen Kelly heard that a plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, she assumed it was an accident and rushed down the street for a better look. She was only a few hundred feet away when another plane sliced through the south tower, erupting into a fireball. She screamed and fled amid cries from the crowd of “Terrorism! It’s terrorism!”

Now, 10 years later, not a day goes by that she doesn’t think about the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing thousands in a terrorist plot against the United States.

“Through the accident of my having been there on that day, 9/11 has changed my personal life in many ways, even as I also know it also has changed the world,” says Kelly, who was among more than 150 respondents to a U.S. Catholic survey asking readers to reflect on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

For some the legacy of September 11 is personal and profound. A decade later families and friends of the thousands who died still grieve; rescuers and others struggle with injuries and illnesses sustained in the aftermath; and thousands of U.S. servicemen and women, not to mention tens or even hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, have died or been injured in the two wars that were this country’s response—for better or worse—to the attacks of 9/11.

Maria Schwab, whose cousin lost her husband of less than a year in the Twin Towers, felt numb as she watched smoke billow from the Manhattan skyline from the back window of a Brooklyn school where she was working in 2001. Ten years later, she sees Ground Zero almost every day. “It’s a constant reminder of how lives have been changed,” says Schwab.

And not just for the victims and their loved ones. That the hijackers were Middle Easterners attacking in the name of Islam also immediately altered the lives of anyone associated with the Muslim faith or of Middle Eastern descent.

Many respondents believe that since 2001 Americans as a whole have become more racist, less tolerant of difference, and more discriminatory. Yet only half say their own opinion of Islam and Muslims changed—and when it did, most believe they have become more informed and tolerant.

“September 11 has made me even more sensitive to American Muslims’ struggles and lives than I was before,” says Julie Kelemen of Rice Lake, Wisconsin. She worries that her adopted son from northern India will face prejudice because he looks like “one of them.”

Innocence, trust, safety, personal liberties, even a spirit of cooperation—all have been casualties of September 11, U.S. Catholic readers say. Instead, a post-9/11 America is a place of division, suspicion, and a “shoot first, ask questions later” foreign policy. Nearly two thirds of respondents believe that the country’s stature has been diminished because of our response to the attacks.

“That day could have evoked our finest response—that of examining our culture, our greed, and then entering into dialogue over the issues that were at the foundation of the attacks,” says Nancie Chmielewski of Muskego, Wisconsin. “The attacks were wrong and horrendous. But I often wonder if our response could have been more humane.”

Julia Smucker of Collegeville, Minnesota agrees: “Tragically, it has fueled the cycle of violence on many levels, not only militarily but also in communities and in public discourse.”

Only a few respondents noted anything positive about the impact of 9/11, such as increased humility or unity. “We are not invulnerable, and we need each other,” says Sue Moylan of Elgin, Illinois. “I also think we are more cognizant of the heroic efforts a few made on that day, and what a difference brave men and women can make.”

Instead, respondents were nearly unanimous in noting that the negative headlines of today—war, political polarization, the debt crisis—are the result of mistakes and missed opportunities after 9/11. While half believe invading Afghanistan or assassinating Osama bin Laden was a justifiable response, only 17 percent think invading Iraq was.

Four out of five respondents also disagreed with “enhanced interrogation techniques,” racial profiling, or holding prisoners and “enemy combatants” without trial or charges.

“We seem to be living in a society that is much more individualistic and worried about personal rights with little regard for the rights of others,” says Catherine Sims of Mundelein, Illinois. “Some have made their fellow citizens into enemies simply because they think differently. The rancor we see in Congress is symptomatic of the rancor in the society.”

Hardness of heart, fear, anger, intolerance: Aren’t these spiritual issues? What role should religious leaders and ordinary religious folks, including Catholics, have played after 9/11? What could have been a Christian response to the attacks?

Perhaps the distance of time makes it easier for readers to risk sounding idealistic when offering an alternative response. A number quoted scripture: “Turn the other cheek”; “Love your enemies”; “Forgive 70 times seven times.”

“Jesus would never have advocated violence to fight violence,” says Darlene Tempelton of Springfield, Ohio. A truly Christian response, says Deacon Denny Duffell of Seattle, would be “to teach others about the discipline of nonviolence and the ways in which it is far stronger than violence.”

The best response, nearly all agreed, was prayer—for the victims, for peace, even for the perpetrators—though only slightly more than half admit they have prayed for the 9/11 attackers and other terrorists. G. Byerly of Maryland has. “Although that is not an easy thing to do,” she says, “I find it helps me to see individuals rather than a whole group as being responsible for certain actions. It also helps me to not allow hatred to consume my every waking moment.”

Germaine Wieman of Houston deals with her grief and anger about the death of her nephew’s wife, the mother of three young children, in the World Trade Center, by meditating on the lines from the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” she says.

Some believe forgiveness and love is too soft a response. “As much as we might want to ‘turn the other cheek,’ there are times when might and military force is the only action we can take,” says Jack Hodson of Houston. “The country must protect its citizens and borders from attack, but we cannot debase ourselves to the point where we are no better than those we oppose.”

Others think Americans need to look at our complicity. Perhaps a better question might be, “What should the Christian response be to the causes of terrorism?” Patti DeWitt of Buffalo, New York says we should “look for ways to diffuse the impulse to terrorism, which grows out of a people’s feeling of impotence and dispossession.”

“We need to take a good hard look at ourselves and try to realize that our attempt to control the world just doesn’t make it anymore,” says Christian Brother Michael Segvich of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. “I am a great supporter of the United States and a patriot, but we have to realize that we often act selfishly, and this angers people in other parts of the world who don’t have the advantages we have.”

In hindsight, most think church leaders could have done more to encourage a more peaceful and peacemaking reaction to the attacks, and some regret their own responses—or lack thereof—wishing they had written their political representatives, protested the Iraq war, or spoken out against bigotry against Muslims.

Many, however, don’t think they could have made a difference, perhaps reflecting a societal feeling of helplessness that is itself a result of the attacks. Even a decade later, people still feel wounded, vulnerable, and confused.

“Writing the answers to these questions has forced me to consider that I have not truly worked through my feelings about September 11 even after nearly 10 years,” says Joanna Harmon of Albuquerque. “I am not sure I will ever truly feel that my inner reaction will be resolved in a way God is calling me to.”

And the survey says...


1. The 9/11 terrorist attacks justified the following U.S. responses:

50% - Invading Afghanistan

48% - Assassinating Osama bin Laden

45% - Requiring full body scans and pat downs to enforce security for air travel

43% - Trying terrorism suspects in military tribunals

23% - Holding prisoners and "enemy combatants" without trial or charges

23% - Monitoring phone calls, emails, and library records of U.S. citizens without a warrant

19% - Using water boarding, sleep deprivation, and "enhanced interrogation techniques" to secure intelligence information

17% - Invading Iraq

20% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“None of the above. Each and every item in this list has been one more downward step in the loss of face of the United States and its government.”

2. Because of our response to 9/11, the stature of the United States around the globe has been diminished.

63% - Agree

22% - Disagree

15% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“We had the sympathy of the world, and we frittered it away by invading two countries.”

3. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 had an effect on my faith.

42% - Agree

58% - Disagree

Common response:
"It deepened my faith and the need for the Body of Christ."

4. I have prayed for the 9/11 attackers and other terrorists.

58% - Agree

35% - Disagree

7% - Other

5. Before 9/11, I never worried about terrorist attacks.

66% - Agree

27% - Disagree

7% - Other

6. I now worry about terrorist attacks:

65% - Sometimes.

23% - Never.

7% - Frequently.

5% - Other

7. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 continue to have an impact on my everyday life.

60% - Agree

40% - Disagree

Common responses:
“It sounds cliché, but the more we let terrorists get to us the more they win.”

“The expense of war and counterterrorism is a deadly drain on our economy, so everyone is affected.”

Results are based on survey responses from 153 USCatholic.org visitors.

This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 9, pages 18-22).

Image: Jed Conklin/ZUMA Press/Newscom