“Some buildings have collapsed in New York.”
Those words were spoken to me by my wife at around 9am on September 11, 2001. They barely registered in my mind as I rolled over and pulled the covers up over my head. I had worked the overnight shift at McDonalds, and was trying to squeeze in the last few minutes of sleep before getting up and taking on the day. Added to my normal exhaustion was the fact that our oldest son, Michael, had been born eight days prior.
About an hour later I staggered out of bed and made my way groggily to the kitchen. My mother, who was visiting us to help with our newborn, was there doing dishes.
“Remember when we visited New York and went up to the top of the Twin Towers?”
“Yeah…” I replied.
“Well, we won’t be doing that again.”
Now, fully awake, I ran to the living room where the TV was on. And from that moment until I went to work that evening I was glued to the screen.
Today, twenty years later, I’m watching a 9-11 documentary on Netflix. The desperate 911 emergency calls, the videos of people falling from the burning towers, the heartbreaking final calls to family members, the bystanders watching in shock as the buildings collapse into rubble…even at this late date these images evoke strong emotions: shock, horror, sadness, anger.
Today the internet is full of such remembrances, many of them from people where were much closer to events than I was. My most vivid recollections come from the aftermath, from the changes I saw in society over the following weeks, months, and years. These are what I want to share here.
A brief, shining moment of national unity.
America before 9-11 was fragmented and politically polarized. America after 9-11 was unified.
There was a patriotic fervor the likes of which I had never seen in my lifetime, and have not seen since. That afternoon, on my way to work, they were selling (or in some cases, distributing) American flags on every street corner. Every radio station that wasn’t broadcasting the news was playing patriotic music.
When the evening talk shows came back on, they were sober and reflective. When Saturday Night Live returned to the air, the traditional “cold open” was replaced by Mayor Rudy Giuliani standing with a group of NY firefighters. After the opening number SNL producer Lorn Michaels asked the Mayor if they could be funny.
Giuliani’s response: “Why start now?”
A few days after the attack I was fighting my way through morning traffic in the Tampa area, listening to a popular radio station. The hosts of the morning show announced that they would be playing the national anthem in the next few minutes, and that if people were listening while driving they should turn on their headlights as soon as it started. As soon as the opening bars came over the airwaves the oncoming lane lit up for as far as I could see. Tears came to my eyes and I had to pull over. I still get choked up as I remember that moment, even all these years later.
It was a moment when I felt like Americans had rediscovered their core values. And though it did not last long, every once in a while I still catch a wisp of it in the air.
A few years ago I was at a Memorial Day parade in a small town in Upstate New York. Among the groups that marched by was a cadre of men from the local volunteer fire department who had dropped everything to rush to the aid of a beleaguered New York City after the attacks. I remember those men, and all the other first responders from across the nation who did the same, every time some smug New York pundit writes a hit-piece on “middle America”.
Leadership in focus.
Among the many personalities that became household names in those unprecedented times, two naturally come to the forefront: the aforementioned Rudy Giuliani, and George W. Bush.
Much ink has been spilled talking about how 9-11 transformed the Bush presidency. He certainly rose to the occasion, his off-the-cuff “…and soon the whole world will hear you” comment was exactly what the nation needed to hear at the time.
And this moment still gives me goosebumps.
Whatever issues you may take with Mr. Bush’s subsequent decisions (and I certainly have my issues), his leadership in those early days was much needed and appreciated.
But 9-11 did not just transform the Bush presidency. It also transformed how the media talked about the Bush presidency. I remember being in an airport and seeing seeing the cover of, if I’m not mistaken, People magazine. It featured George and Laura Bush, and the headline was something like “How the Bush’s Faith Supports Them”.
Such a headline from a mainstream magazine would have been unthinkable on 9-10, just as it became unthinkable just a few months afterward…just as it is unthinkable now.
A military state.
One moment more than any other drove home to me the fact that my country had changed, drastically. A few days after the attacks I took my mother to the Tampa airport for her return trip to Upstate New York. And there were armed soldiers everywhere. They stood in camouflage at every entrance and exit, automatic weapons at the ready.
Later on I would experience the new hassle involved in international travel, including restrictions implemented by the Brazilian government in “diplomatic reciprocity” for similar restrictions put in place by the newly-minted Department of Homeland Security.
In those emotionally-charged days I can remember being impatient with those who were skeptical of the new powers given to the executive branch. “We’re at war…desperate times call for desperate measures” was how I responded. Now, a full twenty years on, I can recognize that some of those people were more far-sighted than I, as I watch the government use national emergencies – both real and contrived – to encroach more and more on the fundamental freedoms Americans once held to be sacrosanct.
Where are we after twenty years?
The initial answer to that question is not encouraging. America is more polarized than it was on 9-10. Our leadership is at once more inept and more thirsty for power over everyday lives – in the name of safety, of course. The Taliban is in control of Afghanistan…again. The moral and cultural rot that was in evidence in 2001 has spread, metastasized, and putrefied. And the church – writ large – does not seem to be in a place to speak biblical truth to a dying nation with anything approaching credibility.
And so…as I remember 9-11, there are a few truths that I should also remember:
9-11 did not take God by surprise. Neither did Covid. Neither does anything else.
The Gospel is still key. In the video I shared above, a woman in the burning tower is told to “think positive thoughts”, and “say her prayers”. That may be all a 911 operator can say. But why does it seem like that is all the Church is offering to the dying world around us? “Flee the wrath to come” is a much more appropriate, and useful message.
“Civilizations are born Stoic, and die Epicurean.” That quote comes from historian Will Durant. And I think about it a lot. In my ever-humble opinion, we need to start focusing on how best to be a witness for Christ in the midst of a dying civilization. St. Augustine’s City of God should be required reading. So should C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, especially That Hideous Strength.
The final word goes to the Apostle Paul: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12
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