I hear from friends from time to time who say they wonder what I will write here when certain events happen around the world. The capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. The breakout of violence in Egypt. The war in Libya.
But save for an essay I recently wrote about the Casey Anthony trial, I’ve remained pretty silent here on current events. I expect that someday I will voice more thoughts on such things here, but for now I don’t have words to speak that seem not spoken better elsewhere.
Today, though, I can’t help but begin to articulate some of what my experience of 9/11 has been, both at the time it happened and today, ten years later, as I’m continuing to think about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and what influence that has on the ideas of nonviolence I continue to pursue.
So, here are some thoughts.
When 9/11 happened, I was nowhere near this journey toward nonviolence. I couldn’t have comprehended that word, even — nonviolence — because I’d never, at that point in my life, given the idea any thought. At the time 9/11 happened, I was very much in the middle of a spiritual sea change, seeking to understand who I was and who God was, as all my previous ideas about both had become upended.
As far as actual life goes, I was the director of a university honors writing program at the time. Every morning, I drove from Huntington Beach to La Mirada — a 45-minute commute against traffic — and normally drove in silence, letting my thoughts wander and sometimes spill out of my lips in spoken prayer in the quiet of my car. Other times I played favorite albums on my CD player.
I never listened to the radio in my car. Ever.
But for some reason on that morning, I flicked it on. I’m not sure what compelled me to do so, but just as I exited the freeway in Buena Park next to the long row of auto dealerships right there by the exit, I turned on our local classical radio station to hear the announcer stating that an orange alert had been declared for the state of California. After hearing him say this two or three times, it got my attention, and I kept waiting to hear why it had been declared. I didn’t even know what an orange alert was at the time, but I could tell it was serious.
He didn’t give any more details in the moment, however, so when I arrived on campus a short while later, I unlocked my office and logged on to the campus network. There, I saw a very brief post in our department folder from one of our students that stated what had just happened to one of the New York flights. Thinking the orange alert and the flight were likely related, I headed over to the department secretary’s office and found her and several students huddled around a radio in a corner of the room. I joined them in the corner, and we sat listening in silence, unable to wrap our minds around what was happening at that very moment.
The overwhelming feeling I had that day was sadness. Those images of the towers burning and then crumbling to the ground, the people running fast to beat the approaching cloud of chaos and debris, the people jumping from those building windows . . . those aren’t images you soon forget, are they? I stood in the second-floor hallway of our department building much of that day, surrounded by staff, faculty, and students, all of us watching the images play over and over again.
It felt horrible and surreal and confusing, all at the same time.
In my confusion were so many questions. Why did this happen? America has an enemy? Why would innocent people be made a target? What does this mean? What now?
I tuned in that night, along with the rest of America, to hear the president’s address. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but I can speak for myself: I was looking for leadership in that moment. Answers. Information. Understanding. And to know what happens next.
It was a complete surprise to me to learn we had such an enemy. I’m sure that sounds naive, but keeping up on current events and international relations and political and religious overtones in the world simply wasn’t a priority to me at that time.
We all became educated quite quickly, didn’t we?
As I look back on 9/11 now, I can see the seeds of nonviolence already at work in my life. In its aftermath, I never became over-zealous for America’s sake. I remember feeling scared for our continued safety, and as significant days have come and gone in the intervening years, I have continued to wonder if those who consider America an enemy will stage another attack of some kind upon our soil.
But my experience was never that of adopting a particular brand of patriotism. I wasn’t one to brandish an American flag on the back side of my car, for instance, or wear a shirt that said, “We will never forget.” That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with choosing to do that, but only to say that the seeds of a nonviolence ethic were already more present in me than I consciously knew.
Here’s what I mean.
When I have thought about 9/11 over these last ten years, I have thought of the people lost. I have thought about their lives cut short and how much that event still grieves their families.
And I have thought about those who conducted the attacks and whom America sought out in hidden caves and corners of Afghanistan. I kept wondering about them. What, if anything, would make a difference to them regarding us? What did they hope to see happen in what they were doing? Was death and destruction the only way, in their eyes? Is it the only way in ours, too?
Today, as someone whose life of ministry and study is particularly preoccupied with the nuances of the human heart and how love comes to exist and grow inside of it, I still ask those questions. I have so much to learn — and will likely be learning the rest of my lifetime — about these things. How do enemies resolve their conflicts? How do we become people bent on understanding and reconciliation instead of hatred and fighting? Is there be an alternative to war? What would such an alternative require?
I guess what I’m saying is that I speak about these things not so much from the vantage point of an American as from the vantage point of a Christian. I’m learning that my citizenship supercedes any earthly country. I am a citizen of the human race, but even more than that, I am a citizen of the city of God. And in the city of God, every human being bears equal weight and value. Every human life is precious. Every soul carries significance.
The lives that were snuffed out in plane crashes and burning buildings and crashing structures that day were human lives more than they were American lives. And those who strategized and commandeered airplanes and crashed them into land and buildings were human beings more than they were Muslim extremists or enemies of this country.
It is humanity we’ve lost here — and on both sides.
So the question I ask in remembrance and consideration of this day’s significance is, how can we honor and mourn and dignify the humanity that was lost? And how can we help restore such lost humanity going forward?