Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11, 2006 - The Terror: Five Years Later

Today's the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Yesterday, I shared my recollections of that day with the congregation in a sermon, "9/11: What Have We Learned?." Here's an excerpt:

I was sitting in the kitchen over at the manse, finishing my second cup of coffee and reading the newspaper, when Claire called from work. "Turn on the TV," she said. "I just heard something about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center."

I turned on the news, and there it was: those familiar images that are now burned deeply into our consciousness. Not long after, there came the pictures of the second airplane hitting the other tower. I had just spoken with Dottie and Diane, over in the church office, a few minutes before. They had heard the news on the radio. I called them back and said, "Come on over here. I think you need to see this. Let the answering machine take any calls. This is too important."

It seemed like the right thing to do. History was unfolding, minute by minute, and it didn't seem right for anyone not to see it. And besides – if truth be told – I didn't especially want to watch any more of it alone. It seemed like one of those times when people ought to be together.

A few minutes after Dottie and Diane came over, the three of us saw it: the collapse of the first tower, and then the second. Who would have thought such mighty works of engineering could come tumbling down so quickly, each floor collapsing onto the next? The sight was emotionally riveting, and absolutely horrifying, at the same time.

For some reason, that line from the first Star Wars movie came to my mind. Darth Vader has just deployed his dreadful weapon, the Death Star, to destroy the planet Alderan. Across the galaxy, Obi-Wan Kenobi sits up and takes notice. "I felt a great disturbance in the force," he says, "as if millions of souls cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced."

The human lives snuffed out in the twin towers were numbered in the thousands rather than the millions – but still, as we sat there and watched the towers fall, we could almost hear the cries of agony.

Late that afternoon, after Claire had returned home, she and I went down to the beach. We felt drawn there. Looking northward, into Monmouth County and beyond, we could see that smudge of smoke on the distant horizon: a dark plume, slanting to the eastward, as the prevailing winds slowly blew it out to sea.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were one of those events – like the assassination of President Kennedy, the first steps of Neil Armstrong onto the moon, and a handful of others – that call forth a vivid recollection of exactly what we were doing when the news came through. There are few events that touch so many lives, that are truly a common experience for people of our culture. Yesterday, I knew – as I stood in the pulpit and shared the details of what I was doing that morning five years before – that everyone in that room over the age of 9 or 10 had gone through something similar.

How different that is from the events I have been narrating in this diary! Yes, there is a sizeable community of cancer survivors, but we are a minority (and may we ever remain so!). Write about the thoughts and emotions connected with watching the twin towers fall, though, and everyone has a similar story. Among the many thoughts that come to mind is an awareness of our mortality.

This morning, I glance through a special insert that came in yesterday's newspaper, containing photos and brief biographies of dozens and dozens of people from central New Jersey who died in the attacks. Most of them were beginning an ordinary work day, in offices on the upper floors of the twin towers. Some were rescue workers, who courageously entered the buildings, passing so many others who were streaming out. A few were there by accident – like one man, a telephone installer, who had the singularly bad fortune of being called in to install equipment in the Cantor Fitzgerald offices. Had his work order been dated a day earlier or a day later, he would have survived.

Five years ago today, I didn’t know I had cancer. Had I gone for an ultrasound on September 11, 2001, I don’t know if the technician would have detected anything out of the ordinary – although it’s possible the tumor was slowly growing inside me, even then. The question is academic – because, whatever genetic switch is encoded into my DNA, causing certain lymphocytes to go malignant, it was already there. As I watched the live newscast of the collapse of the towers and wondered, along with everyone else, what it’s like to die, who knows if the switch had already been thrown?

So many things in life, we just don't know about. And so, we live by faith. The opening line of the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – which I shared with the congregation in my sermon yesterday – says it all:

"In life and in death, we belong to God."

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