This past Sunday, we marked the anniversary of 9/11.
Twenty-one years ago.
Damn. It still hurts. My memory both shimmers and shudders, but there are few things that hold a more firm place in my memory.
It had been a beautiful, crystal blue morning, with no humidity, and that is noteworthy in Atlanta. I had made my way to my new office at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church for an early morning meeting with the two lay leaders of the congregation. Classes were back in session at our wonderfully bulging prep school, so there was a steady flow of kids walking/running/scrambling in front of my office. An everyday morning, until it was not.
My assistant popped her head into my office, telling us that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers in New York. I was a bit disturbed by her interruption, not for the news of the plane, but that we were carefully going through the numbers on my contract for a final edition, after much negotiation. I assumed that it was a private plane, with a malfunction or some medical emergency for a pilot. It turned out to be ironic that my own flight training had been at an airport where one of the pilots received some of their training,
A few minutes later, she told us that a second plane had hit. Clearly, something was up. We left my office to go to a space with a television to watch the aftermath. Speculation abounded, shock numbed the atmosphere, but soon we knew. It was the work of terrorists who had hijacked commercial airliners to assault the symbols of our economy and political power. They had disrupted our illusion of security, misplaced as it was, by bringing down these symbols of American power.
The wake of the aftermath was so odd.
We had numerous prayer services at the church for our community. People from the neighborhood piled into the building for prayers, the ringing of bells, accompanied by the seemingly never-ending listing of names of victims. I had to speak “a word” to these people that I did not know about this disaster, how to make sens of this horrendous event. Shaking at my seat, before offering my words from the loft of the pulpit, I tried to disrupt my anxiety by focusing on my breathing as the Trappist monks had taught me to center, to simply, and profoundly “be” present. It occurred to me suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, that my task was similar to those chaplains and priests that had to speak on the days after Pearl Harbor. Strangely, this gave me courage and a sense of connection to a wider perspective.
I discovered that an older student from my high school, who shared the family name of McBrayer, was in an office on the top of one of those towers that fell. Ken McBrayer, had been our quarterback, and seemed to take special care to boost my underclassman flagging spirit. He easily filled the role of “my hero”. He wound up going to the Naval Academy, served as the commander of a ship during Viet Nam, and was working for a firm in New York, with a wife and two kids in the suburbs. In an instant, he was gone, making the full tilt of the tragedy even more real for me.
My office was flooded with appointments, individuals and couples, asking a basic question: where was God in all of this? Tragedy makes for a tough time to be formulating a theology, but that is what these people that I did not know were doing: trying to make sense out of this, most of them using a framework of causality constructed in childhood with whisps of fairy tales and comic book plots. They knew deep down in their souls that these narratives could not contain the strains of this magnitude of tragedy. So they came to me, searching, groping, clawing for meaning.
I remember the patriotism, the flags flying off the back of fire engines, roaring down the street. It was an auspicious time to be in the flag business. Flag decals seemed to be slapped on anything that slowed down enough for application, centered or not.
I recall a renewed spirit of neighborliness, of reaching out to help someone in need, a refreshed sense of community spirit. And yet, there was something else unleashed as well as we learned of the perpetrators of this destruction. Our anger burned deep, our anxiety rose as well, and revenge was on the lips of our President perched on a heap of rubble, as well as in coffee shops, bars….and churches.
A former acolyte of mine, Logan Walters, was serving as George W. Bush’s chief aide. He had called me on 9/11 to check in. He called me again a few days later, asking me if I wanted to go to hear President Bush’s speech, his first formal address following the attack, scheduled for Atlanta. I did not want to leave my family alone during this crazy time, so he arranged four tickets for us so we could go as a family.
I picked up the tickets the day of the speech, taking the MARTA train to the downtown Regency Hotel to where the Secret Service was set up. My family filed into the meeting, Logan having surprised me with VIP seats, and we waited in a spooky silence, a silence that I don’t think I had ever experienced before that night. We were still shell-shocked from the images of falling bodies, towers tumbling, and hearts broken. I don’t remember a thing the President said, but do remember a feeling of quiet rage that seemed to simmer, but just underneath, an anxiety about the days ahead. What had these hellhounds unleashed?
Some took that rage and directed it by volunteering for military service. The attack had touched the hero archetype for some: for others, a deep sense of duty; for others, revenge; and for many, a mix. Some found other ways to express their feelings in other constructive avenues. I remember doubling down in those initial days of my service in that suburban parish to not dodge the hard questions, to fall into my natural quid pro quo mentality that wanted revenge. That was the natural response, MY natural response….I am formed in the ever-present South of God sense of loss that was be avenged. But I was intent on processing this in light of this radical person of faith who offered me a better way. This Jesus, who admonished me, a former South of God boy who knew all about kicking ass, “South shall rise again!” BS, to make things “even”. This person I called “Lord” admonished me to love my enemies and pray for my persecutors. This might not be an easy time to wade into the new waters of a parish, but it was the hand I was dealt. I tried my best to be pastoral to folks who were hurting deeply, full of rage, while at the same time, holding up the prophetic end of the deal, calling us, me, to another way of response. It is called the “way of love”.
I recall that this time gave me a rare opportunity to engage people quickly, because it raised existential questions about faith, our identity as Christians, and how we should respond. It proved to be an introductory time on steroids for me and this parish, letting them get to see what made me “tick” as a priest. And similarly, it unrobed the parish “spirit” to me more quickly than it could have in normal times. Their suburban gentility oozed at the creases, a part of their native identity that I had not bargained for. For good, and not so good. we got to “know” one another in the biblical sense. I was “on” well before a bishop could get around to “installing” me, as we say in the biz, like some refrigerator, or Sub-Zero in the case of HI.
I find myself wondering on this particular day, twenty-one years later, what spirits got released on that fateful day of reckoning, 9/11. As I began, I know we found a renewed sense of “togetherness” as Americans, standing up together against those who wish us harm. The neighbor-spirit was rich, unlike any I had known before, or since, and I valued it highly.
But at what cost?
Looking back in my rearview mirror, it seems that we have become more isolated, more self-protective in our stance toward the world. Us versus Them.
Our military might was mobilized to strike back, to take our revenge, to “let them hear from us” rather than any altruistic motive of protecting the innocent, not even casually covering our intrusion in the veil of “making the world safe for democracy”. We leaned hard into revenge, culminating in a breath of relief and celebration when Osama, the ultimate persona of a villain, was killed.
And although the Statue of Liberty, a gift ironically from France, was not a target of the terrorist-guided planes, it might have well have been, as the result was a country that no longer welcomed the masses who were seeking freedom from oppression. “Give us your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Rather, we were hearing chants of “build that wall” to keep “others” out, human beings characterized by politicians as “hoards”, and some who lost control and called out Muslims as “the enemy”. Jobs and tasks that only immigrants, my ancestors, would do to make their way into and place in this country were denied access. An isolationism became rampant, and my guess is that it flowed from a deep well of fear that 9/11 brought, as our shores had been relatively free from for most of its history.
The night of Nazi-like marching through the streets of Charlottesville, with Tiki torches flaming, and white boys chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” I never thought I would see such a scene, in MY country. And yet, there they were. I remember, as a student of history, wondering how such a sophisticated culture, with excellent education like Germany, could fall for a guy like Hitler and buy into a white supremacy scheme, playing on ego and fear. Now, I think I know,
But that was just the beginning. That fear and opposition got focused in an insurrection, aimed at our democratic process and even at the central symbol of our government, the Capitol. Folks who used to be known for “backing the blue”, suddenly turned on the law enforcement and police, battering them with the very flagpoles they were flying as a symbol of liberty, all in an attempt to disrupt our lawful process of an election.
We are in a tough time, when our democracy is threatened seriously, not by some snake oil salesman who wants to profit off our amorphous anger, anxiety, and fear, or the latest generation of conspiracy theorists who can always seem to find an audience. No, now it’s the deep questioning of our whole election process, frightened by the demographic changes that have occurred in our country. People who are okay with the democratic process, as long as they can control it, and win. They now seek to control it by kidnapping that very process, speaking of “the steal”.
With moments of silence today as we pause to remember the events of 9/11, my thoughts return to that very day, September 11, 2001, and my personal resolve to brave through that horror, committed to keeping this country and our democracy alive.
But, I remember that on the night of that 9/11, I found my ancient notes from a lecture by my Constitutional history professor who cautioned me, in my sophomoric enthusiasm for our republic, as he paused and looked at me, square in the eyes, and said, “Mr. Galloway, never, never forget that America is an experiment in democracy, and it can all come down in a heartbeat.”
The profundity of that moment in a classroom still rings in my ears. On that night of 9/11, his words that had once pierced the bubble of my innocence, returned to re-mind me of the precarious nature of democracy. And on this day, 9/11/22, it stirs the depths of my heart with fear for our union, fragile and firm. But, digging deep, I find resolve in my gut…our union will prevail! Got to keep the faith. WE, the people, must keep the faith. Or, we may find ourselves asking, “What the hell happened?”.