In Memorium: September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001 my wife and I were living in Redding, CA.

That morning as I was getting ready to start my day, my phone rang and one of my parishioners, Chris Pearson, was on the other end. He told me to turn on the news because a plane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I turned on the t.v. just in time to see the second plane crash.

I had a psychology class to teach that Thursday morning so, after calling my wife who was at a conference in San Diego to make sure she was alright (because all air travel was canceled, she would have to stay there for several days), I went off to the college.

As I recall, people were understandably upset, angry and confused. Mostly though folks were scared. The president of the college canceled classes for the day but asked the faculty to go to our classrooms and lecture halls to be there for the students.

Like the faculty and staff, many of my students were upset–some scared. But mostly they were angry. A number of students had seen early news reports from the Middle East. In the video they saw people dancing in the streets and firing guns into the air to celebrate the attack on the U.S.

At this point it wasn’t clear who had launched the attack–the reports of the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93 were just coming in–but some of the students (correctly it turned out) blamed Islamic terrorists. For my own part, I urged caution in the lack of evidence and reminded the students that the Oklahoma bombing had been perpetrated by an American.

In all my years of teaching this was the first, and only, time students dropped my class after the first week. I lost a fair number of students that week.

After class I again called my wife in San Diego to see how she was doing. While scared, she and her colleagues were safe (for those who aren’t aware, San Diego has a number of military bases that might very well have been targets had this been the start of a conventional war).

Over the next few hours and days, I kept a lonely vigil in my church. I said Trisagion services for those who lost their lives in the attacks and asked God to bring peace.

While the events of that day were horrible, we later learned that they were less horrible then we all initially feared.

Again and again on that day people asked me what I thought about what we were hearing on the news. And every time I said the same thing, I have no frame of reference for this many deaths (the early reports put the death toll at over 5,000) killed in this way.

It happened that on 9/11 I was in the process of writing an essay for the local newspaper the following week (though it ended up not appearing until October 6th). Looking back on what I wrote, I am less then impressed with my attempts at being even handed, it feels now to me like well-intentioned, but nevertheless an inappropriate example of moral equivalence.

Mechanically, the essay is also unimpressive; my syntax isn’t very good, my analysis and argument are weak. I’m not really sure what, if anything, was the point I was trying to make beyond the fact that now that war had come to us we need to pursue justice, but avoid revenge. How that was to be done is totally absent from the piece.

My essay ended in this way:

I think that war in some form or another is now tragically unavoidable. As is best in our character as Americans, we have chosen not to allow the forces of chaos, violence and terror to prevail. To combat evil we have chosen to place ourselves between the terrorists and their future victims. We ought not to debase the sacrifice that many of us will make with warmongering cries for a justice untempered with mercy. If we wish to be a Christian nation, “let us seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14); let us temper our desire for justice with mercy, “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13); and let us find it within ourselves to forgive our enemies, as Christ forgave us even as we crucified him (see Luke 23:34).

To be honest, I’m not sure if what I wrote, I wrote out of conviction or duty. Probably it was some combination. Do I believe now what I wrote then? Yes, but I hope I could say it better and with a bit more humility or at least less pretense.

Thinking about the events of 9/11 and how they have subsequent unfolded, I am frankly divided about the morality and prudence of the whole range of responses, American, European, Middle Eastern; Republican and Democratic; Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular.

I think the best response to this, and possibly any, war is offered to us by Abraham Lincoln at the conclusion of his Second Inaugural Address (Saturday, March 4, 1865)

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

May God grant eternal memory to all who have lost their lives in this, and all, wars.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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