I had been an immigrant merely 5 months that fateful Tuesday morning when 19 wicked men flew two airliners into the majestic twin towers on Manhattan Island, one into the Pentagon, and yet another, forced into the ground by heroes, in Shanksville, PA. The mayhem, shock, sadness, and disbelief of that surreal day were superseded only by the brilliance of the sun, blueness of the sky, and mildness of the temperatures. Everybody knows that life has changed since then, and some would say, not for the better. We have not fully healed from 9/11.
First responders – those who have not died yet – would tell you that they relive 9/11 every day. Their nightmares, emotional pain, and symptoms of their lives slowly ebbing away from some respiratory or other disease contracted that fateful day, are constant reminders of 9/11. Those who have long since buried loved ones (if they had anything to bury) will tell you of their searing pain which, despite their gratitude for our memorializing their loved ones and this epochal event annually, is a palpable reignition of their pain. On a far lesser scale of pain (if it can be so called) the rest of us must face the variegated hassles of airline travel, which shall never again be the same.
Since 9/11 we may have become more ill. We have become suspicious, xenophobic, politically tribalized, and religiously intolerant, if not bigoted. This is no fault of 9/11, but it appears to stem from how we coped with the traumatic events, as well as with developments beyond. A controversial war that most have come to now acknowledge as ill-advised and unnecessary, polarized us. Misinterpreting disavowal of the war as rejection of our troops (I’ve never understood how anyone could make that stretch!) fragmented us. Ignorance about Islam frightened us. Lies in high governmental places alongside horrendous treatment of prisoners of war hardened us. Deficits from the cost of war, exacerbated by tax cuts (that benefitted only the rich) during a time of war, destroyed the economy and angered and impoverished most of us.
We have not fully recovered from 9/11, let alone the ravages of the succeeding years. But recover, we must. Even now, while we lack the political leadership to help us heal, being saddled with a divisive (and reportedly detached), demagogue in the executive, a congress overcome with fealty and impotence, and a judiciary whose majority appears increasingly partisan and beholden to ideology rather than law, we must heal. Though it would help to have these persons lead us into wholesomeness, it is clear we must do it without them. So how shall we heal?
On that fateful September day, first responders took responsibility, serving the people, risking and giving their lives for them. Strangers helped others to stumble through the rubble to safety. For several long hours, we transported one another from place to place without asking what we believed or for whom we voted. Together, we walked miles to safety across bridges, in grief and in resolve to get past this. Government and municipal agencies went the extra mile to serve the people. For nearly a week, almost 7,000 of us received warm hospitality, not as unwelcome aliens, but as friends, finding refuge and welcome while marooned in a little Canadian town where our 38 wide-bodied aircraft were grounded by the FAA. There was a reported uptick in people seeking meaning in their respective faith communities. In our grief, shock, and brokenness, we were better, and demonstrated how much greater we could become.
We can heal and become whole again if we elected people to public service, or employed such, who serve the public selflessly and sacrificially, not thinking of saving their own skins.
We can heal and become whole again if, though strangers – but as fellow humans – we helped others stumbling through their life reversals and challenges, in empathy, sympathy, and urgency.
We can heal and become whole again if we served one another, and not just ourselves.
We can heal and become whole again if we learned how to walk together, offering hospitality to one another, and receiving hospitality from one another.
We can heal and become whole again if we offered generosity and welcome to the stranger and refugee – our sisters and brothers and children in distress.
We can heal and become whole again if we deepened our faith: not the kind that alienates us or isolates us, or divides us, or “superior-tizes” us, but the kind which opens our hearts of sisterhood and brotherhood to others, regardless of their faith, origin, or circumstances, so that perhaps, our welcome of one another might avert our crossing that thin line between true religion and evil.
We can do it.
May this 17th anniversary of 9/11 bring America back to her senses, and to what really propels us toward not some bogus claim or form of being great again, but toward becoming “a more perfect union.”
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Michael Friday is an organizational leadership specialist, working through Transition Ministries, American Baptist Churches, USA. He is author of And Lead Us Not Into Dysfunction.
(Photograph is of the Pennsylvania 9/11 Memorial during construction. Retrieved from https://www.popsci.com/sonic-memorial-september-eleventh#page-4)