A few days ago I watched a couple of those documentaries that come around each year to commemorate the September 11th, 2001 mass slaughter of American innocents by an enemy so foreign and morally alien that one wonders how God's good earth could be their home. A few snapshots linger:
- One gentleman, a bookish-looking fellow, working way up high in one of the towers, tells of standing at his office window and seeing the plane coming at him. It penetrated two floors above. He still sees it sometimes, waking him from sleep; at other times he sees it while awake.
-A fireman not scheduled for work until 4 p.m. gets a phone call and races to the firehouse, reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour. If he hadn't asked his comrades to wait for him, they'd have been up in the buildings when they fell. "It's always in the back of my mind," he says. "I'll never be the same."
- A black woman who worked on the 63rd floor remembers descending the stairwell with co-workers and passing firemen on their way up carrying heavy equipment. She locks eyes with one of them. Something in his expression arrests her, and she still thinks of him years later. "I don't think he got out," she says, and begins to cry. She later shows up in a famous photograph running barefoot from the building and across the street, high heels clutched in one hand, the other on top of her head thinking to shield herself from falling debris.
- Over at the Pentagon, another black woman, an accountant, is sitting at her desk when she feels the building shudder and then sees a fireball blow by. She pounds on a window in her effort to escape, leaving bloody palm prints, but she's pretty sure it's not her blood. Then she looks up and sees blood "coming down from the ceiling."
- A camera catches Donald Rumsfeld - these days everybody's favorite Iraq War whipping boy - running from the building, but not alone. He's one of several manning a stretcher bearing a wounded colleague.
- A blind man who worked in one of the Towers descends a stairwell in the company of a friend, his Labrador guide dog Salty. They're taking up space for two as they pass firemen on the way up, so he sets the dog free to do as he pleases. A few minutes later Salty returns to his side; the man re-connects him to the harness and is eventually led to safety. Salty had to be put to sleep in 2008, but the blind man, as might be expected, weeps to this day over his friend's devotion.
- As an emergency rescue vehicle approaches the burning Towers, the female EMT at the wheel says to her colleague, "I just ran over somebody's leg." When they get to the buildings, bodies are falling from the sky, individually and in chains, and when a body hits the ground it sounds like a gun going off.
- After Lieutenant Komorowski's fire company makes its way inside the North Tower, their captain announces, "Some firemen are going to die today." When they get to the 27th floor, the captain looks out the stairwell window, then turns to his men and says, "We're leaving." He does not tell them what he saw. The men are stunned, their moral duty awaiting them many floors above. The captain repeats the order. Out the window he had seen the South Tower go down. They did not get out before the North collapsed - they could hear the floors above them pancaking in sequence and felt the mighty downrush of air - but because they were at a particular place in that particular stairwell, they mostly survived. It was the only place from which anyone left in that building came out alive. One who didn't, a chief, was trapped from his legs down below them in the rubble. He radioed that he couldn't feel his legs anymore, and his fellows couldn't get to him. His last transmission was a request that they tell his wife and family that he loves them.
- Back at the Pentagon, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Correa and a colleague were watching on TV what was happening in New York. "You know, Colonel," said the colleague, "that could happen to us, here." Then, says Correa, "Chaos hit." He sees a fireball coming at him and as he's flying through the air he also sees the building's windows expand and then come back in. Then he hears people screaming, "in agony."
- Nearby, a moderately attractive middle-aged blond woman named Betty, chief of "military demographics," and who could be your next door neighbor, is one link in a human chain trying to crawl to safety beneath the fire and smoke. After a while a voice up front, their leader, says, "I'm sorry. We're not getting out this way." Some of her friends fall apart in fear, panic, despair - but she says she felt strangely "comforted by the fact that I was not going to die alone." Somehow she survived after being dropped from a second floor window into the arms of a waiting man below. Her feet never touched the ground. Moments after being set free, the area of the building from which she had escaped collapsed.
- A fireman entering one of the Towers later described the sound of bodies hitting the glass canopy over the entrance, breaking the glass, then bouncing off and onto the chief's car. Two of those bodies belonged to a man and woman who had embraced before leaping, and were found on the ground with their arms still around each other.
- A man who somehow survived the collapse of the South Tower crawled from the debris to stand on a steel beam, and felt his shoes melting into it, while around him bodies fell from the North Tower. He saw on the ground a leg still clad in its brown pant leg, its foot in a black loafer, and then another leg from the sky crashed into his shoulder and he thought, "I've got to get out of here."
- Sergeant-Major Tony Rose and Col. Correa went back into the Pentagon many times. Security and rescue personnel tried to stop them, but couldn't. On his last trip, Rose saw what he described as "the front wheel's fuselage," and that's when he tied what was happening at the Pentagon with New York. That was also the moment that he became "mad as hell. Somebody had killed my friends..." He noticed body parts, "nothing big," but the water was rising, parts floating upon it and heading for the storm drains, and he knew if he didn't retrieve them they'd be lost forever, so he started picking them up; at one point both his own hands were full when he saw a very small one float by, so he put it in his pocket because there was nowhere else for it. It was a kid's hand, and here speech deserts him. He inhales and exhales deeply, huffing and puffing at the outrage of the memory, finally getting out that he can't describe how mad that made him. He and Correa were awarded the Purple Heart, the Legion of Merit, and the Soldier's Medal for their actions that day.
- Three days after the event, fireman's Lieutenant Komorowski started shaking uncontrollably, his nerves coming all undone. On camera he seems preternaturally calm and matter-of-fact, as though some peace has been found, or else some mighty battle is being waged to keep the nerves together. It seemed to this viewer that the calm veiled but slightly a submerged sadness in which one can only hope he never drowns. And all the survivors ask: Why me? Why was I allowed to get out?
There was one woman's voice I can't get out my head, coming, I presume, over the 911 wire. She was trapped somewhere beneath the fallen buildings: Can anybody hear me? I'm a civilian. I can't breathe much longer! Save me! But we are never told of her fate. And not a voice, but an image, of a sixteen year old named Elizabeth up in the air on Flight 93 calling her mother by cellphone: "Mom. We've been hijacked. I'm calling to say good-bye."
How many thousands of stories must there be like these? 9/11 (speaking for myself) is fast becoming a fixture in that firmament of historical benchmarks about which one wonders if there is anything more to be said, almost as if seeking words that might convey the enormity of the event might also partake somewhat of sacrilege. Maybe better just to let the participants, the living and the dead, have their say, tell their stories, while you and I listen, watch, and try to understand in silence.
But also to wonder. We can't help it. "Murder," Mike Royko once wrote, "is the most terrible crime there is." The man who sets his mind to it, and carries through, sets himself as well in the place of the Giver of Life. What God gave, the murderer takes away, and what I wonder is: Who am I? Who are you? What are we worth? Didn't God put you here for some purpose, to fulfill a destiny? Has God not placed you here, in Newman's words, "to do Him some service"? Do you believe that you "have a place in His plans," that "He knows what He is about"? But you could be gone tomorrow, like those thousands on 9/11. Are you a writer with a great novel in the oven? A philosopher with the next great idea? A scientist whose scribbled notes contain the harbinger of a cure for some dreaded malady? Or maybe a plumber, or a renovator of houses, or a school janitor? Maybe you were a 9/11 fireman who had hoped to be able to put his kids through college. What will they do now that you have returned to dust? Was what you hoped to achieve ever really of any importance? Why is there no sign that God thinks so? Are we what we do? Or does what we do reveal who we are? I don't know. Maybe those two are the same question, maybe not. Maybe the old cliché has something to it: It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. We do the best we can until we can't do anymore.
Yes, but still, what was your destiny? Does God care that you had another great book in you, a cure in your notes, a child to educate? When you're cut off in mid-stride, did you ever really matter? Suppose you were an unborn child whose mother had decided that her destiny would be better fulfilled without you in it. Not only does the game not matter, you never got to play. What was that child's destiny? Well, it's the same as that fireman's, as Todd Beamer's and Barbara Olson's, and that of all the other 9/11 thousands and of every human being who ever lived: to die this day.
Which means (I can only surmise) that heaven must be that place where you will become the person you were meant to be. Great books, paintings, symphonies, medical cures, philosophical tomes, and conscientious workmanship in all walks of life are rewarding, enriching, nice to have around and satisfying to perform, but it must be that God wants something more. No work, no life, that is, can ever be finished, not even those of the greatest saints, until it bathes in the dawn of glory. It must be, then, that He wants only our goodness. It is the only "ticket to paradise."
And I wonder further: can I ever be good while wishing hell upon those who force me to think about these things when, really, I'd rather not? Life is pleasanter when one can approach them at one's leisure rather than at the barrel of a gun or in the aftermath of destruction. I'd rather not think about the answer, either.
Reading back over some of this, I'm wondering if silence might not have been better after all. Yet we feel compelled to remember, to pay tribute, and since I've come this far I'll offer the only tribute I have left:
Nine years ago, on the first anniversary of That Day, when the blood still ran hot for retribution and a still vivid memory kept our hearts alive with empathy, gratitude and admiration for those who really mattered - the ones who suffered and suffer still, and the ones who died - I asked at the time whether it would be "wrong of me to think of them as members of the One Body, even if they didn't know it or believe it. The beloved apostle said that his Master was 'the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world...'They were, and are, family...it could have been you or I up there in those buildings, or others whom we loved beyond expression. We pray for members of our family, both living and dead, for the living because they still strive with us in the vale of tears, for the dead because we owe them; we wouldn't be here without them; we walk in their footprints; because we're still connected. We knew them once, and whom you know once you know always."
And so I guess my final tribute (and yours, I hope) will turn out to be a thing offered in silence after all - a prayer, an apparently small and pathetic gesture (and one, I hear, that will not be offered by any clergy at this year's memorial, for the simple fact that clergy are not allowed; we were assaulted in a godless fashion, but we still know how to keep God in his place.). But we are commanded to do it. It is possible that we can help the survivors keep heart, that your supplication will resonate in their souls with a force far exceeding that delivered by any terrorist bomber, since your prayer carries into eternity, while a murderous act happens only once on earth, killing the body but not the soul. You can touch them in this way; you can give a helping hand to the 'peace which passeth all understanding.' It is possible. It is what you can do right now, at this moment. It is your destiny because it is His command, and He would command it only if it were a very good thing to do. So I surmise, so I trust.