Friday, September 11, 2009
September 11th--a Meditation
On this September 11th I do what I have been doing on this day for years. After that terrible day when the Towers fell and Washington and the Pennsylvania landscape were so scarred, The New York Times—began to publish “Portraits of Grief.” Each day for fifteen weeks they published miniature profiles of people who died in the hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Center. They published 1,910 stories and pictures of many that had died that sad day. After that project was finished they bound all the stories and pictures into a large volume called, Portraits 9/11/01. And so every year I take down this book and look through its pages and remember.
Lost that day was Neil Levin, executive director of the Port Authority. There was Roko Camaj, an Albanian-born window washer just back from vacation. There was Heather Ho, a famous pastry chef; and David Alger, Harvard-education chief financial officer. And there was Tawanna Griffin, a cafeteria cashier. There were also traders and brokers in their thirties and early forties. Batallion chiefs, newlyweds, aging basketball stars, fiancées, doting fathers and loving mothers were found on those pages. People from over 80 countries lost someone that day.
Alongside these perhaps we need to publish two more volumes. The names and faces of all the young men and women and all those not-so-young who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe we need a third volume of all those “over there” whose countries have been irreparably destroyed. That book would show names and faces of all the innocents that have died because of this war.
What an ugly, ugly time we live in. After September 11th we came together briefly. We huddled as one. We were afraid and we began to love or re-love New York. We viewed the American flag with different eyes. But our unity did not last long. Soon we were back to our old ways of grumbling and bickering. Now it looks like the divide has grown wider between the us’s and the them’s. Screaming at rallies that were to evoke dialogue. Guns coming out of the woodwork and appearing at political rallies. Talk show hosts that are determined to undermine and spread their poison everywhere. We are afraid. Of our jobs, our mortgages, of our safety. We are afraid for our own little half-acre. We mistrust one another. Who would ever have believed that parents would keep their kids home to protect them from the words of the President of the United States?
Osama ben Laden must chuckle as he reads the reports that trickle back from America. Surely we can do better than spreading chaos and suspicion everywhere. Surely we can provide health care for all our citizens. Surely we can treat one another, despite all our differences as the brothers and sisters that we truly are. Surely we could rejoice that despite our tortured racist past that we finally have elected a brilliant black man to serve the highest office in our land.
Not long ago I read David McCullough’s 1776. It tells of the heroic struggle of a people who broke away from a constricted system that gave them only a partial freedom at best. They wanted more. They dreamed of a place where liberty and justice could be established for all. Their war with England was long and difficult. Many died. Some ran away and joined the enemy camp. They gave General George Washington a hard time. One dark evening, McCullough notes that Tom Paine sat down after the American troops had to retreat by campfire and wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldiers and the sunshine patriots will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Remember what happened? They banded together to forget a new dream for a new day. They did not all agree—far from it. But they joined hands with a common purpose and a common enemy.
We can do better in our time. We can recommit ourselves to a more perfect union, as our President reminds us. We can seek to make that word, United States more than a title. We will live up to our name. We will find a common good that brings all into the circle. As I riffle through the pages of Portraits and read some of the stories—I pray for us all. God bless America—but only us. Everyone. The whole wide world.
(I took the above photograph in NYC as I started to board the ferry for Ellis Island. It portrays a sailor reaching out to rescue a fellow sailor. This seems to be an appropriate symbol for today.)