Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was on a park bench across the street from the church where I was an associate pastor, sipping Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee and writing in my journal.
It was going to be a beautiful late summer Tuesday. I was at such peace on this particular morning that I was inclined to write about nothing more profound than my observation of an inchworm’s movements on a nearby tree trunk.
“The caterpillar working its way up the tree doesn’t crawl; he pushes off from his hindquarters and creates a wave that carries his tiny appendages forward as its back arcs. He moves by riding his own wave.”
I didn’t have a cell phone or a beeper at the time, so no one was trying to reach me. I concluded my lighthearted meditation and headed over to the church, ready to take on the day from a place of peace. Strolling into the office, I first encountered the receptionist. Her eyes were red and watery. She had the radio on, and I could hear that it was news, not music. She looked up and her voice broke, “Everyone’s in Stephen’s office.”
The shocking images
Stephen’s office was close by, but it was enough steps away that my imagination had time to ricochet off a number of possibilities. Indeed, everyone was in Stephen’s office, silent and all facing the same direction — staring at a small TV. The second tower already had been hit, which confirmed suspicions that the first collision was no accident. The images were so disturbing. Then the images and story of New York City yielded to the live footage of a crash scene at the Pentagon. What was happening? Where would be next?
We watched the TV all morning. I slipped out just long enough to call home and tell my wife to turn on the television. That’s all I said. It was all I knew to say. We all watched as the first tower began to crumble and disintegrate right before our eyes. There were few words expressed —just gasps, sighs, and tears. The broadcasters echoed our thoughts and questions. We knew there were people inside: office workers, policemen, firemen, and rescue workers. They couldn’t know the tower would begin to collapse in on itself. Nobody knew.
We didn’t think that the carnage of the towers could get any worse unless they were hit by more planes. The footage of that first smoldering tower suddenly collapsing in on itself was as shocking as the initial crash and fireballs. Then the second tower mimicked the first one.
The disturbing reality
In the midst of shock and mourning we had enough clarity of thought to know that the world as we knew it was instantly and forever changed. We didn’t know exactly how it would be different; we just knew that a monumental turning point had occurred. My parents remember where they were and what they felt when they got the news that JFK had been shot. My grandparents’ generation vividly remembers the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A new century was still a toddler in 2001, but it suffered a wound that would leave a permanent scar … if it ever really healed.
Days later I returned to the park and wrote in my journal. There was no inchworm in this entry, just uncertainty, the feeling of being vulnerable, and the unspoken question- Why?
“This week the world changed. The future will reveal to what extent, but it’s now forever different. One journalist referred to Monday, the day before 9/11, as “the world as we knew it.” The trees around me in this park look the same today, but they are rooted now in the soil of a different country; they tower into the sky of an altered world.”
Fifteen years later, I’m struck by two things. First, Secondly, albeit through grief and outrage we were united as Americans for a time. But today we are more divided as a nation than perhaps at any time since the Civil War. In the fall of 2001 we at least identified the enemy as far removed from ourselves. In the fall of 2016 we have declared that the enemy is each other.