I rolled over on the sofa and groped for the remote; behind me, my husband was rattling through the kitchen in a noisy effort to make the morning caffeine. I had fallen asleep in front of an old movie the night before, and my back ached from lying on the sofa.
Channel 3 flickered to life, and I blinked. One, two, three times . . . what the hell? Towering Inferno? Then understanding slammed into me with a sickening thud. I gasped out Bill’s name, but it took a couple of tries before I got his attention. “What?” he snarled. “Look. Please.” I think it was the despair in my voice that made him turn and see the South Tower of the World Trade Center sway, totter and fall across Manhattan in a ballooning mushroom cloud of flame, smoke and dust.
We sat on the sofa, transfixed by the horrors of that morning, served up to us in glittering high def on our new plasma screen TV. Much of the coverage was unedited at first; I distinctly remember seeing a figure on fire, a man, cartwheeling through a window and spiraling down in a smoke trail like some shot up fighter and crashing into a walkway with a horrifying bang. Then more, some holding hands and taking their last step into the void to escape the hell behind them. The slow, deliberate, implacable collapse of the North Tower which absolutely obliterated every discreet object in the area to a twisted and ruptured pile of steel and concrete. We all saw it that day, saw the evil that mortal men are capable of inflicting on innocents, and the joy that many took in the wholesale slaughter and destruction. The machine of war was put into motion on that day, and is still grinding on. We were all scarred forever by what happened on a clear, blue Tuesday morning.
Every anniversary it seemed like the wound was reopened, the grief reexamined, the tears wiped away and the pain brought forward again and again and again as the names of the lost were read. When I visited friends in New York in November of 2001, there was a foul, rotten odor in the air, and every surface was coated with thick, tenacious, gritty dust. My friends have since told me that searchers continued to find fragments of bones on the roof of their building years after the attack. You could feel the particles squeak under your feet. You could feel the ghosts.
But time has a way of numbing the senses; and I listened to some interesting rationalizations. We had it coming; not much compared to the last century’s sad census of mass death. It’s a bitter parade: WWI with Verdun, the Somme and fields of poppies; Armenian genocide; Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Khmer Rouge and murderous North Korean dictators; and less obvious death and despair from persistent and oppressive colonialism. This year, some commentators noted that maybe it was time that America let go of 9/11 and get over it. The last rescue dog from Ground Zero died. Children are growing up and moving on. Slowly, America is forgetting what happened on that day. Like so many other days, it becomes less about the reason and more about the federally approved day off.
But I remember, and Santayana’s admonition about those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it rings round my head. We are more alike than we are different, but those in power want to exploit the choler and frustration of citizens to achieve often obscure and frightening ends. And that is evil as well. Sometimes it seems that no matter which way you turn, there is nothing but rage and dead ends, bitter dishes at the angry buffet.
I don’t know how to eliminate evil; I don’t have a clue how to effect change, speak truth to power, spin out webs of stereotype and hyperbole. The only territory I know absolutely is the rather dark land in between my ears, and I guard that frontier carefully. But on that day, watching the burning man, incandescent and spinning like a Catherine wheel, I knew that I had to make a choice, for myself alone. Be good. Be kind. Try to do the right thing, always. Maybe begin those halting steps back to a spirituality that I thought was long gone. Try, in some minute way, every day, to honor the lost—all those lost to corrupted power and terror.
Tom Junod, in his article “The Falling Man”, put it most pointedly, and also most poignantly:
“Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn't jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn't jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.
Oh, no. You have to fall.”
Perhaps we are falling into the arms of God. We are all trying to fulfill our own small miracles, and by that grace, (even in the midst of the sorrows of this world) find our way home.