Acting on the Lessons of 9/11

Photography © by the Carmelite Sisters

The events of September 11, 2001 reawakened most Americans — and with us, so many others in the world — to some of the fundamental realities of human existence that in day-to-day life can be marginalized or ignored: the reality of evil, of death, of heroism, and of God. The most fitting way to mark the tenth anniversary of this day that changed us and in fact the whole world is prayerfully to ponder these lessons and recommit ourselves to acting on them anew.

Lesson 1Evil Exists

The most searing lesson we learned on 9/11 is that evil exists and that we’re not isolated from it. Together as a nation, we witnessed evil up close and personal in its all moral ugliness, human destruction and physical wreckage. There’s no other adequate way to describe the long-plotted murder of thousands of innocent people in order to instill dread in millions of others. And, as subsequent events in Madrid, Moscow, Mumbai, London, Netanya, Bali, Casanblanca, Riyadh, Istanbul, Beslan, Baghdad and literally thousands of other less publicized attacks have taught us, this evil still exists. There are real villains in the world who continue to scheme how most effectively to massacre innocent multitudes to advance their agenda — and who deem it an honor to give their lives hijacking airplanes, strapping themselves with explosives, planting bombs or using automatic weapons in order to annihilate innocent fellow human beings.

Allied with this evil, and fomenting it, is a culture and educational system that trains people to believe that such terrorist actions are valiant and good. This culture is based on a false and perverted set of religious ideas, a particular understanding of Islam, that needs to be condemned and confronted by all those who believe in God — and in a particular way by religious and civil leaders and citizens in the Muslim world. Every religion with any seed of God’s influence over the course of history has acknowledged certain principles that God has written into the heart of all his human creatures. One of these is that the killing of innocents is always wrong. Another is that we cannot do evil so that good may come of it. The terrorists, on “religious” principle, violate each of these universally-recognized moral truths, and have formed madrassas across Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia and elsewhere to inculcate this religious darnel among new generations of morally blind warriors.

Against this evil, both the evil of terrorist acts and the evil of educating and inciting people to commit them, there has been a need for consistent vigilance and action. Much has been done in the area of trying to prevent terrorist actions, from lengthy and costly (humanly and financially) military interventions overseas, to the restructuring of government intelligence and police agencies, to intrusions on privacy and freedom everywhere from airports to home computers to phones. The transition hasn’t been easy or unproblematic, but the changes have all flowed from a consciousness that there are truly bad guys seeking to harm the innocent and that consequently we’re no longer living with the Cleavers in Mayfield. The counter-terrorism agencies and the members of the military deserve a lot of credit for their hard and dangerous work systematically in breaking up terrorist networks. Against the larger issues of cultural and economic situations that make people vulnerable to being recruited toward terrorism, there has also been a great deal thought and work, much of it unseen, but this is a much harder and enduring task even than catching the terrorists.

Lesson 2A Thief in the Night

The second major lesson of 9/11 is about death, including the possibility of a sudden death. Little did the 2,976 people who went to work at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center, or who showed up to fire stations in New York City, or who hopped on planes early in the morning at Logan, Newark and Dulles airports, know that that would be the last day of their life on earth. Little did their family members and loved ones know that they would never see them again in this world. Many since look not just at flying but at life in a different way. Whereas everyone recognizes that there’s always the possibility of a tragic accident occurring, 9/11 and the ongoing threat of terrorism has made us much more aware of our mortality and the preciousness of life. The “Imitation of Christ” has a perennial counsel that has guided countless saints and others throughout the centuries: “In every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day.” Once we start to do that, we begin to live in a different way. Some of the victims of 9/11 showed us how to live in this way, prioritizing the most important things that so often we put off until a “tomorrow” that may never come. Without worrying about the money, people picked up the expensive airplane phones to call family members and tell them once more that they love them or to ask for forgiveness. When some couldn’t connect with their family members, without shame they asked anonymous operators to pray with them the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23. And Todd Beamer and many others on United 93 heroically risked and gave their lives in order to save others’ on the ground. If we live our days each day in this way, interacting lovingly with family members, praying without shame, sacrificing ourselves for others, then death will not catch us as a thief in the night.

Lesson 3Overcoming Evil with Good

The third lesson is about heroism, about overcoming evil with good (Rom 12:21). If the bad guys are willing to risk it all, the good guys need to be willing to sacrifice everything as well. We saw so much of this good and sacrifice ten years ago. Not only did we see it on United 93, but we beheld it in the valor that induced hundreds of firemen and policemen to run into the Twin Towers when tens of thousands were running out. We have seen it in the gallantry of young soldiers and intelligence officers who have traveled far from their families to enter foreign caves, tunnels, booby-trapped streets and other perils to try to catch the terrorists. We saw it in the first instinct of millions who asked, “How can I help?,” as, within hours of the attack, ordinary people in New York and elsewhere stood in line for hours to give blood, and doctors, nurses and priests sprinted for miles to get to trauma units in case they might be needed. We saw it in our political leaders, who did what they were elected to do — lead — and did so under immense pressure with grit, courage, magnanimity and grace. In the midst of the dusty darkness of one of the worst days in American history, the rays of light from the best of Americans began to radiate. This type of heroism, of unity, of sacrifice shown by ordinary and extraordinary people, needs to persevere in order to outlast and triumph over the terrorists’ obdurate maleficence. This is something to which we should all recommit ourselves on this tenth anniversary.

Lesson 4God has the Last Word

The final lesson of 9/11 is about God. Some, succumbing to the perennial temptation about why God doesn’t stop all evil, asked where God was on 9/11. Fr. James Martin, SJ, responded that on 9/11 God was offering us a parable. As he was ministering to the wounded at a Manhattan hospital, Fr. Martin looked around at the rescue workers and realized, “God is like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone. That’s how much God loves us. And I saw this love expressed in the great charity of all the rescue workers who gathered at the American Golgotha.” That’s one of the reasons why the “Ground Zero Cross,” the perpendicular steel beams that rose out of the wreckage and has been moved into the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center, is rightly such a powerful symbol. Just as the Cross on Calvary isn’t merely a symbol of pain and death but of the love that bore that pain and the life that triumphed over death, so the Ground Zero Cross is a clear reminder that evil doesn’t have the last word. The last word goes to God, a word of justice against those who do evil and on behalf of those who suffer it, a word of mercy that brings light even out of darkness, a word of life in response to death.

The most fitting way to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, therefore, is by prayer: prayer for our country, that we may be strong, courageous and persevering in our opposition to terrorism and other evils; for all our civil leaders and those who are on the front lines in protecting us in the military, police departments, intelligence services and homeland security; for all those who lost loved ones ten years ago; for the salvation of all those who had died; and for the conversion of the terrorists and the cultures that spawn them. And we should make this prayer silently as individuals, as we will at 1 pm on Sunday with Church bells tolling throughout the land. We should make it with our families at home, in living rooms and perhaps exceptionally before television sets. And we should make it in our Churches where we enter into the mystery both of the Cross and of the Resurrection for which the Cross is the prelude.


Acknowledgement

This article originally appeared as an editorial in The Anchor on September 9, 2011.

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About the Author

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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