Moving Beyond 9-11


  • UUA President Peter Morales Reflects on 10th Anniversary of September 11
  • “Remembering September 11,” by Stephen Shick in Be the Change


It was a cool fall day as I pulled up to the McCormick Place convention center on Chicago’s Lake Michigan. It was Print 2001, the graphic arts show.   I was the managing editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2001, the year before I entered seminary, and as my editor-in-chief and I parked we listened to a report of an aircraft flying into the World Trade Center. What a terrible accident, we thought. A terrible accident.

By the time we had entered the convention center we noticed that many of the video displays at vendors booths were tuned to the news. We stopped and realized that a second plane had impacted another World Trade Center tower in New York. Along with the rest of America, we realized immediately that this was an intentional attack on U.S. soil – not a random accident. For the better part of an hour we stood there spell bound until the looping images got the better of us and we could stare no longer.

We did not know what to do. Should we go back to the office and stare at the computer monitors there? Thousands of people were at the trade show already and we decided to continue our business looking at digital proofers for our magazine and at the latest printing presses.

By the end of the morning, one by one, each of the hundreds of monitors usually displaying whatever technology was being sold, each of the monitors eventually was tuned to the news. It was overwhelming. Hundreds of monitors all displaying the same images over and over from every angle, wherever you looked.

We decided to leave, and on the way out something interesting happened when my boss noticed the paper shredder that she had been needing for the office. It was being raffled off. “Just take it,” the vendor said when he noticed her admiring it. “It seems silly to raffle it off now. Enjoy the shredder. You just won the raffle.” It was a small act of kindness – but it was what he could do.

Everyone has their 9/11 story. I’m certain most of you remember where you were when you first heard of the attacks. My 9/11 story actually continues into October, when I was scheduled to travel to New York City for a journalism conference. My editor asked if I might extend my trip and do some reporting while I was in the city.

I stayed with a college friend in Tribeca, about four blocks away from ground zero. Even though it had been about six weeks, the fires still burned down the street from his loft. He was one of the people you saw on the news running down the street as the buildings fell. He rushed into his apartment and for the rest of the day on September 11 watched from his window only a swirl of smoke and office papers, he said.

I spent the day at Ground Zero looking for a story. They had not yet closed it down yet as most people were still staying away; it had not yet become a tourist destination. I walked right up to the gate and peered in, taking photographs for the magazine. I walked across the street and ate and the diner with firefighters and first responders. My usual reporter’s instinct was to start interviewing. Walk up to someone and get their story. But I ate my sandwich in silence, unable to form the right questions. My reporter’s notebook remained closed and empty.

I had no story to report, I told my editor back in Chicago. There would be time down the road, I her, where we would have things to say from our magazine’s unique arms control perspective. And while I did write other things that month for the magazine, there would be no first hand account from Ground Zero. The dim from other media was already deafening.  This was the first time I’d ever come back with no story from an assignment.

The problem of 9/11 is that certain stories quickly gained ascendency. That Iraq was behind it, so we needed to go to war. That we could shop out way out of the funk in which our country found itself. That entire cultures of evil doers were out to get us. Instead of mindfully looking for where we were legitimately vulnerable, for terrorists have always sought to disrupt our way of life, we became a country steeped in paranoia. Instead of looking at the roots of 9/11, we looked to the terrible consequences and found enemies everywhere.

The problem of 9/11 remains that we have been satisfied with the simple stories instead of the complex realities. This is how our brains are wired. In his book Incognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman explains how most of what is happening in our heads is never known to us. The myth is that we use only 10 percent of our brains. The truth is we use all of our brains – but are aware of only a small bit. Most of what is happening in our heads is primal, and in much of our lives we have only a small awareness of what lies beneath. We understand, for example, that our brains are gears to crave fats, salts and sugars because throughout early human development such building blocks of food were scarce. We understand that while we may be programmed to create as many babies as possible, in the modern world this is counterproductive to the planet and that there are cultural and spiritual benefits to monogamy. These things go against the underlying programming of our brains, but our capacity for reason gives us control.

But when something like a terrorist bombing happens, our programming kicks in, and we are scarcely aware of what is happening. What turns usually reasonable people into chest thumping patriots? In the past 10 years we, as a culture, have witnessed our hard wiring urging us to separate and split humanity into us and them thinking. This is nothing new. Humanity has done it for millennia. And yet this faith of ours calls us to move beyond our base instincts generated for us by millions of years of evolution.

How do we move beyond 9/11??

That may have been the question that Bruce Springsteen had as he envisioned his latest album, The Rising, and its title song that we heard earlier for our anthem.  Springsteen told journalist Mark Binelli in the August 22, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone  that he got the inspiration for the album a few days after the 9/11 attacks, when a stranger in a car stopped next to him, wound down his window and said: “We need you now.”

Writing songs about 9/11 could have taken many forms. Music has been used to stir nations to further anger and warfare. It’s also been used to sow seeds of peace. Most of the songs on The Rising focus on people dealing with 9/11, which seems to me a beneficial way of considering what we have been through. One song is a about a man holed up in his house, afraid. Another is about a suicide bomber and what might be going through their head. Yet another is about a New Jersey town, boarded up.

Springsteen’s approach invites us to simply be with the tragedy, to consider the consequences of what has happened. There are two things we must do after something like 9/11: first, consider mindfully; next consider our next actions. To do one without the other is to lose an opportunity for insight.

America, mostly, lost an opportunity for insight as we jumped from tragedy to war, now the longest war in U.S. history. A war that has led us to accept perpetual war, as in George Orwell’s 1984, perpetual war as a way of life.

This acceptance of perpetual war has had profound costs. In this week’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson invites us to use the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 bombings to reflect on the costs of war against Iraq and Afghanistan. Noting a Brown University study called the “Costs of War,” Gusterson says that in terms of money and in human suffering, the expense of the wars has been appalling.  Novel Prize winning economist Joseph Stinglitz and Linda Blimes estimate that in funds already disbursed or committed, the war has cost the American taxpayer $3.2 trillion, so far, at least. Of that, $200 billion is in interest payments, with another $800 billion to go by 2020. This is because usually when nations go to war they increase taxes, but the Bust administration paid for these wars by borrowing instead of taxing.

Then there are the human costs. 225,000 individual Afghans and Iraqis, more than half civilians. More than half, non-combatants. Almost 8 million Afghans and Iraqis are displaced. We lost 2,976 people in the World Trade Center bombing, and 6,000 in the aftermath of fighting. If the fighting ended tomorrow, caring for the 522,000 veterans who have filed disability claims from these two wars will cost the United States between $600 billion and $1 trillion dollars.  As Gusterson notes, we will be paying back debts from 9/11 for a long time.

“When we hear our leaders talk about military operations,” he says, “it is tempting to think of military force as a powerful but precise tool for achieving objectives like the rmoval of Saddam Hussein or the defeat of the Taliban. We have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan … that the tools of war cost a lot to wield, that they end of killing many innocent people was well as their intended targets, and that the blowback from war leaves a trail of devastated and diminished human beings who struggle with the consequences of war for decades after the last soldiers have laid down their weapons.”

As Dana Priest and William Arkin say in their new book Top Secret America, we have “shelled out billions of dollars to turn the machine of government over to defeating terrorism without ever really questioning what [we] are getting for [our] money.”

This tenth anniversary of 9/11 is a both a time for reflection and a cue to start asking some difficult questions. We owe this to the 2,976 people who died as the towers fell, the 6,000 fallen American soldiers, the 225,000 middle eastern people who have been killed by us, and the more than half a million Americans who have been wounded.

We owe it to them to do more with the experience of 9/11 than to ferment hatred and mistrust. We owe it to them to reflect and to craft a better story

That is what Bruce Springsteen did in his album. He reflects on 9/11 in ways that bring us back to the human nature of suffering – both the direct impacts of violence and the subtle insults to human dignity. In a minute we’ll listen to the title track of The Rising, which tells of one firefighter’s experience at Ground Zero. You may not understand every word in the song, so let me help. In the song we are put in the thick smoke where we can’t see anything in front of us. As we make our way through the darkness we can feel only the chains that bind us, the stone that we carry, and we lose track of how far we’ve gone. There is the literal in the song, the chain that binds is the rope tied around the firefighter to lead him through the smoke, and the 60-pound stone refers to the oxygen tank on the firefighter’s back. But they also represent for me the chains that hold us back from reconciling the experience – the chains that keep us in that smoke and fire, and the weight that holds us down.

Ten years after coming back from ground zero with no story for my editor, I realize that was too easy.  As others have crafted elaborate stories, so many of us have remained silent these 10 years, allowing military resources to be expended in our name, allowing American power to be extended beyond our right.

I’ve come to realize this week that there may be no moving beyond. If you keep tromping through a forest, lost, you’ll have little hope of finding where you are. But if you rise above, you might gain perspectives of hope that have the capacity to change our behaviors and actions.

To close, I will read the prayer embedded in Springsteen’s song, the one spoken by the firefighter as he rushes into the burning mass of the World Trade Center. They will be this morning’s last words.

The spirits of love stand behind me
Faces gone, black eyes burnin’ bright
May their precious blood forever bind me
Lord as I stand before your fiery light

I see Mary at the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
She’s holding pictures of our children
Dancin’ in a sky filled with light
May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life)

Come on up for the rising
Come on up lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight.