It was, as so many have already said, the Pearl Harbor of our time. It was Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath. It was unbelievable, numbing, sickening, like something out of a movie. It was our worst nightmare, made all the worse by the fact that it had never entered our dreams that such a thing could happen.
And yet, in the mysterious alchemy of grace, September 11, 2001 will always be remembered by those who lived through it as bringing out the very best in America and her people.
I was coming out of mass when I got the full report. My son had mentioned something about a World Trade Center bomb at breakfast but I hadn’t taken it in. Just another terrorist scare in the normal stream of murders, crime and pain that is the daily bread of the news. But now it was being explained. Two planes. Two towers down. The Pentagon blasted. I felt as though I would be sick. The whole world had changed. This was War. I walked home in a stupor, staggered in the door. My wife met me, her eyes red with tears.
We prayed the Rosary with our 12 year old, Matthew, and wept, all three of us, while the littler children played with their toys, safe. I kept looking around at my family, overwhelmed by how precious they are. How precious all my family, all my friends, all my people, all America is.
Then the stories–the awesome, poignant, beautiful stories of courage and nobility from ordinary people–started coming in. On an Internet board, people are checking with one another to see if they are alright. Somebody forwards an email from his son: he missed the train and didn’t make his appointment next door to the WTC. Somebody is interviewed who was on the 65th floor and got out. Maybe most did. I read of the hundreds of courageous firefighters who went into the buildings when everyone was coming out–and died there. I turn on the radio and a registered nurse is calling the host from Jersey, asking for information on how to get into Manhattan to relieve the exhausted medical teams. Barbara Olson, the wife of Special Prosecutor Ted Olson, is reported to have called her husband from the plane that struck the Pentagon. She tried to get a warning out before the attack. The plane, which was apparently aimed at the White House, hit the Pentagon instead. It may well be that passengers like Olson fought their captors to the death to protect the President and crashed the plane prematurely. We know this is exactly what happened on the flight that crashed outside Pittsburgh. Jeremy Glick, a hero for our time who should be memorialized in verse, called his wife on a cell phone, told her he and the passengers had a plan to fight, knew it would cost them their lives, told his wife he loved her–and then apparently rushed his captors with the help of other passengers and sacrificed themselves to save untold thousands of others.
New Yorkers, famous for their brusqueness, formed a gigantic cohesive family unit, as did we all. What did not happen is as telling about our character as a nation as what did. Thugs did not loot. Mobs did not take advantage of the chaos. Nobody made political hay of it. Young toughs in New York who you’d expect to be knocking over convenience stores were stationing themselves out on the street with boomboxes as a public service for the information hungry-refugee from south Manhattan. At St. James Cathedral in Seattle, there was a prayer vigil that evening and the banners honored the Cross, the Star of David–and the Crescent.
And the Resolve! Up till this week, I wondered if we were a nation flabby beyond redemption. Now I believe this country is resolved to fight this war to its utmost conclusion and tear this terrorist plague out “root and branch” as Secretary of State Colin Powell said. I am staggered by the manful courage, the steel, the determination to seek, not vengeance, but justice and ultimately peace. There will be no half measures this time, no matter what it costs.
Most poignant for me, and emblematic of the sheer noble bravery with which we met this war head on was this: one website, normally full of hard-bitten news junkies for whom poetry is the stuff of weenies, posted a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in honor of Barbara Olson, who was a friend of the site owner:
If God compel thee to this destiny,
To die alone, with none beside thy bed
To ruffle round with sobs thy last word said
And mark with tears the pulses ebb from thee,–
Pray then alone, ‘O Christ, come tenderly!
By thy forsaken Sonship in the red
Drear wine-press,–by the wilderness out-spread,–
And the lone garden where thine agony
Fell bloody from thy brow,–by all of those
Permitted desolations, comfort mine!
No earthly friend being near me, interpose
No deathly angel ‘twixt my face and thine,
But stoop Thyself to gather my life’s rose,
And smile away my mortal to Divine!’
I still cannot read this without tears. The sheer nobility and courage of my people this week has been an awesome thing to behold. It is, by the grace of God, who we are. It is, by the grace of God, what we are made of. And it is, by the grace of God, what we will continue to be.
Tell your children.