I was on an airplane that left Detroit about 8:45am on September 11, 2001. The first jet hit the World Trade Center at 8:46am. We’d been in the air about 20 minutes when our plane banked sharply and made a 180-degree turn. The pilot came on the intercom and said there was an air traffic control event and all planes were being ordered to the ground. I wondered how that could be true, and assumed instead there was something wrong with our plane that he didn’t want to tell us. Then I saw another plane out the window doing the same thing we were.
As hard as it is to believe, we weren’t all connected by cell phones then. Someone on our plane had a Palm Pilot, and said in a loud voice, “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” Someone else said, “What’s that got to do with us?”
It wasn’t long until we were on the ground and taking in the horrific site of the second tower collapsing. Then the Pentagon was hit and before long we heard about United Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania. Sometime later, I learned that Flight 93’s air pattern came close to my plane.
Still later, we would learn of the incredible heroism of Todd Beamer and the other passengers on Flight 93. And we’d learn of Welles Crowther, the man in the red bandana, who saved so many lives in the World Trade Center. And there were countless others, NYFD and NYPD first responders, people at the Pentagon, and so many more who stepped up and sacrificed. Even though his later life is a spectacle, I honor Rudy Giuliani’s leadership that day. The immediate response to the brutal and savage attacks on 9/11 were America at its finest.
I remember having an intense feeling of disassociation. It was such a beautiful day. The sky was clear and blue, and yet on the television America was being attacked. Who could hate us so much? Why did they hate us? The airport was a hive of anxiety. Were we under attack in Detroit? People scrambled to use pay phones and get rental cars, and no one was sure if the right move was to go home and hunker down or go on to wherever you were headed.
I wound up in a rental car and went on. I was driving across Indiana and after a while needed to stop for gas (finding an open gas station wasn’t easy—we were shutting down, foreshadowing March, 2020). What I saw was surreal. Amid the closed businesses, there was a strip club by the exit with a sign out front that said, “Hoosier Girls, We Bare All, Stand and Pray, America.” That was my first indication that the country would come together in remarkable unity. Remember, we were less than a year removed from the most disputed and unsettling presidential election in memory (the maneuvering after that election seems very innocent today).
Church attendance swelled for several weeks as people sought transcendence and meaning. None of it, from the burgeoning church attendance to the spirit of unity, would last. In his cogent and powerful analysis of America’s Afghanistan debacle that appeared in this space last Monday, Jim Bratt said that the murderer behind the atrocities of 9/11 predicted a “spiral of discord that would finally disunify the once United States.” He sure got that right. Many in the intelligence community believe Flight 93 was bound for the Capitol. Because of ordinary Americans like Todd Beamer, the terrorists failed, but within 20 years, our Capitol building would be attacked. The enemy, it seems, is no longer “out there.”
Did you read George W. Bush’s remarks given at the 20th anniversary memorial he attended at the crash site of Flight 93? They were spot on. Among the most poignant things he said was this, “We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
Richard Rohr said that if we do not transform our pain we will surely transmit it. He was speaking of individuals, but the same is true of nations. What has our nation done with its pain from the 9/11 attacks? Some of our response has been wonderful, appropriate, and deeply moving. But much of it has been shameful. How do we own this wound? How do we transform it and do something redemptive with it?
Transformation starts with repentance. The impossibility of that on a national scale is overwhelming, but humor me for a moment, since repentance is the church’s terrain. The first move in repentance is to lay aside blame and look at yourself. Those unwilling to look in the mirror will just keep lashing out in anger. Those willing to do the introspection repentance calls for honor the lives of Todd Beamer and Welles Crowther and the other 9/11 heroes.
Here’s more from George W. Bush the other day:
“On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.
“At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know.
“At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.
“At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.
“This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been — and what we can be again.”
This post comes nine days after the 20th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In our short-attention span world, it seems very late. But is it? It’s not too late to ask what we’ve learned, to carefully look at ourselves, to take stock of our country. It’s not too late to seek a path of repentance and transformation. It’s not too late to ask, “What’s that got to do with us?”