Two days from today church bells will ring and headlights will be on all over America. In New York City churches, synagogues and, yes, mosques, will hold services commemorating the 3,000-plus men, women and children whose lives were snuffed out on September 11, 2001. The television networks and cable news channels will try to show something appropriate. That is, something contemplative and forward-looking. Several will succeed, though some will find the temptation to relive the horror of the attacks irresistible and will show hijacked aircraft flying into the World Trade Center towers and the towers falling.
Over the weekend many newspapers explored the ways families of the 3,000 victims have reordered their fractured lives. “Reconciliation” seems to be the operative word here. It is certainly not the fashionable “closure,” for there is no such thing when one’s spouse, parent, sibling or child is suddenly gone. One cannot pack away all the memories of that missing life and its relationships and tuck them, neat as a pin, in a recess of the mind.
Then there are the several thousand who survived the attacks. Once the shock wore off, most experienced what is called post-traumatic stress. Our elder son was one of these. He is a bond broker, whose office that day was on the 84th floor of the South Tower. In 1993, he worked at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 102nd floor of the North Tower when the truck bomb went off in the basement. That earlier day, with power out, he and his colleagues walked down 102 floors to the street. This time, when he looked up from his desk to see flames shooting out of the tower next door, he decided to head for the stairwell. So did some of his colleagues. Others stayed.
At the 44th floor, they went out to the elevator lobby and heard a public address announcement to the effect that it was safe to return to their offices. Dick and some others decided to head back to the stairs and keep going down. At about the 37th floor they were nearly knocked over by the shock to the building of the second hijacked aircraft hitting it (at about where his office had been). They kept going and walked out to safety.
Two days later, by then deeply depressed, he said in a telephone conversation, “Why me?” — a question repeated by many who survived intact. I said, “Because God has other things for you to do. What they are isn’t apparent now, but in time they will be.” Like many others, he sought counseling, came to terms with the problem and has long since been at work productively in a new office.
Why me? Why us — as a nation? The answer is not — as the blame-America-first crowd would have it — that we have caused poverty and hopelessness in the Arab/Muslim world. The answer is certainly not — as some Arab state leaders would have it — that we are too supportive of Israel. The “why” lies in a combination of things in that world: too much autocracy, high birthrates, incomplete education systems, too many young adult males with too few job prospects and the siren song of radical clerics who long to turn the clock back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century when, in their imagination, everything was perfect.
When the West gradually moved to secular, civil societies and the Renaissance, much of the Muslim world moved in the other direction, its great tradition of scientific and intellectual inquiry shunted aside. Today, Turkey is the one model of a Muslim state that is resolutely modern and secular, but it must work at that effort constantly in order to maintain it . There is hope in a few others (Algeria and Kazakhstan come to mind).
What we saw on September 11-last is the face of evil. (My dictionary describes “evil” as “Morally corrupt, wicked; producing or threatening sorrow, distress or calamity.”) All 19 of those young men were Arabs and all had succumbed to a distortion of Islam that caused them to believe they would end up in Paradise for murdering innocent people. While we must remind ourselves this September 11 that these men do not — by a long shot — represent all Islam or all Arabs, the states of that world need to look in the mirror and consider the real causes of the events that were intended to strike terror into the American people.