A Meditation on September 11, 2001
Jay B. Gaskill
SEPTEMBER 11, 2016
I was there, in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. As I write these words, the lessons of that terrible, transformative event of 2001 seem ever clearer to me:
- Neither human capacity for bloody minded wickedness nor for heroic goodness can ever be underestimated.
- Evil is a part of the human condition, one that a morally centered people can never afford to ignore.
- One of Evil’s effects, especially when it is starkly exposed, is to produce a surge of goodness in response.
- But the response of goodness decays without support.
- Heroic goodness requires courage to recognize existential evil and confront it.
- That, in turn calls us to the moral center, our ultimate support system, the health and vitality of which we are now called to reexamine.
- The USA, as a center of heroic goodness, may well be Western Civilization’s last best hope.
- The jury of history is still out.
“Today” (as I wrote the following 11 years ago) we are called to remember the events of 9-11 while still in the shadow of a recent natural disaster, with its fresh wounds and recriminations. But all crises carry messages that we are meant to hear—but some messages are clearer than others. Today, four years later, we recall a terrible Tuesday in New York City.
My wife, Robyn, and I had flown to New York to attend a long Island wedding on the 8th and to spend a few days in Manhattan with her son and family. We were set to leave on September 12th. That didn’t work out.
If you awoke on the West Coast Tuesday morning, you might have been greeted by a version of this account from ABC News:
September 11 – In a horrific sequence of terrorist violence, four US passenger planes were apparently hijacked and crashed today, including two jets that flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, causing both to collapse.
In Washington, a plane crashed into the Pentagon, causing part of the building to collapse. A passenger plane also went down near Pittsburg. There were no immediate details available on casualties, but thousands of people work in the buildings affected….
The details – even the bare timeline – are chilling.
 At 8:45 AM Eastern Time, American Airlines Flight 11, a 767 from Boston to LA with 81 passengers, 9 flight attendants and 2 pilots, is hijacked and flies into the North Tower of the WTC, becoming a huge fireball.
 At 9:03 a second 767 out of Boston with 56 passengers, 2 pilots and 7 flight attendants smashes into the South Tower and explodes.
 By 9:17, New York closes its airports, tunnels and bridges. At 9:40 the FAA grounds all US flights, an unprecedented action.
 9:43: American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles crashes into the Pentagon carrying 58 passengers and 6 crew.
 10:05: The entire South Tower, an inferno of burning aircraft fuel, completely collapses in a huge white cloud of smoke and dust.
 10:10: United flight 93, a 757 from Newark to San Francisco, having changed course, crashes in Pennsylvania with 38 passengers and 7 crew.
 10:13: The UN is evacuated.
 10:24: All inbound flights to the US are diverted to Canada.
 10:28 The North Tower collapses. A huge white cloud of dust billows over lower Manhattan.
 Mayor Giuliani evacuates Manhattan South of Canal Street. The Mayor and evacuees walk out.
 Sears Tower in Chicago and the Space Needle are evacuated. Bits of office paper begin to fall over Brooklyn…
And the messages?
There were certain phone messages that morning — from passengers aboard flight 93 before it dived into a Pennsylvania field, and from the people trapped in the doomed upper floors of the Towers. In essence they were the same: “I love you. Please take care of things…”
In moments of extremis, God is always somewhere in the mix: Divine messages are threaded in the warp and the woof of crisis and the Divine presence is embedded in the suffering, the heroism and hope.
September 11, 2001 is fixed in our memories because of context. This context is something our pets can clearly understand. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, “Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.” 9-11 was different from a natural disaster because people did it on purpose.
I wrote my children on September 15th by email from New York: “I wish you had been with me,” I wrote. I described how it was on Monday night, September 10th, when we went to sleep in my stepson Nathan’s small Manhattan office. Not long before, Robyn and I had looked across Roosevelt Island at the Manhattan skyline, sipping wine with old classmates. Monday night we drifted to sleep on a Murphy bed near a desk and a tiny bathroom. We were at 27th and Madison, about twenty short blocks from the World Trade Center.
When I opened my eyes in the dim room Tuesday morning, Robyn was still asleep. I quietly slipped out of bed, went to the desk chair and tapped on a keyboard. Seconds later, I was staring at an odd color image. An airliner had been captured mid-collision, partly inserted in the side of a skyscraper. It was an absurdly tiny picture, not more than two inches on my screen; it framed the last horrific moment when most of that airline’s passengers were still alive.
News trucks at St. Patrick’s Cathedral
“My God,” I said, waking Robyn. At that moment, about 9:07 AM (and more like 6 AM in my head) I hadn’t yet realized that there was a second plane. My context was still shallow.
Minutes later, we were down in the main apartment, staring at the large screen. When it sank into my consciousness that a second airliner had struck the remaining tower, I could feel the context shifting under me like some tectonic plate. People had done this: on purpose. We were in a different world.
Nathan’s little family was busy with mundane morning necessities, the bathroom and the coffee, and Robyn, was out – wisely – trying to find a working ATM. Then Nathan called out: “It went down! The tower went down!”
We gathered to stare at the screen, struggling to take in what had just happened. When Robyn returned, she & Nathan went outside, and saw the people walking down the middle of the street, their shoes coated in fine white dust. When the second building went down, we would smell the dust for days; it was sterile, faintly electric, the sharp scent of ash forged in a crematorium. “Ash Tuesday” I thought. Ash Wednesday. Ash Thursday…
On 9-11, at 6 PM, we attended a hastily arranged memorial service in a small Episcopal Church near Union Square where the organist had been playing all day. Hymn 719 is “America the Beautiful”.
The lyrics proved impossible to sing all the way through without choking up, especially the line—“for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life”. We wept. And we wept again at Sunday services at St Thomas on 5th Avenue.
As we walked through Manhattan over the next days, the mood had profoundly shifted. The images of the battalions of firefighters, EMT’s and police running into the maelstrom while thousands were being led out had exorcised all the demons of cynicism and pettiness. What remained was a miraculous admixture of grief, compassion and admiration. We became, in that time and place, one noble, generous people. Candles were lit in every window; people were weeping openly; complete strangers opening up on a street corner; kindness and compassion were omnipresent.
Wednesday, as we wandered through Midtown, we stumbled onto holy ground. Across from St. Francis Church, a fire wagon, Ladder Truck 24, was parked by its now cavernous, empty station.
The truck was covered in white powder, still piled high on the rear bumper. I walked around and around that truck, staring in wonder at the tracings in the dust. Loving fingers had left benedictions on every surface, words like “HONOR AND PRAISE TO N.Y.F.D.” and “WE OWE OUR LIVES TO YOU.”
The American flag was draped across the ladder. Candles and photos adorned the hood and grillwork of the truck. A large black and white photo of a kind-faced man leaned against the fire station doorway. The station was empty; two solemn men stood watch. The picture was of a fire department Chaplain, Mychal Judge.
As we stayed on in Manhattan, unable to get a flight out, walking among the grief and shock, we encountered countless other shrines– in doorways, shop and apartment windows, on sidewalks.
Union Square became the gathering place. It reminded me a little of Peoples’ Park in the late 60’s, except that our flag was for this time an ecumenical symbol, and was honored everywhere. People sang, sat quietly or chatted softly.
There was an unrolled scroll of butcher paper a block long, where hundreds of messages were written.
I watched a solemn little girl sitting, carefully writing on the scroll with her crayons. There were many tears and many, many floating holy spaces….
I wrote this in my journal at the time:
“Evil is real. It came to this city, near the Manhattan apartment where we are staying, announcing itself in a succession of grotesquely surreal images of a monumental murder.
“Yet Good is real. The last few days here have recharged my belief in the human capacity for heroism and virtue under duress. It is an honor to be among the New Yorkers. I now understand that evil is like a descending night flare on a battlefield, exposing the configuration of forces below. Its terrible light clarifies the essence of things. In that actinic glare, all our differences melt into insignificance because, after all, they are just different versions of the good.”
Later, when our plane finally roared down the runway at JFK, the images of the window candles, the taped up photos of missing loved ones on the armory, on doorways, windows and poles, the long paper scroll in Union Square, the Ladder Truck 24 shrine, all played out in my mind.
As I looked out the window at the suddenly diminished Manhattan skyline, I realized that – for the moment – we had become a single people, whose disputes and differences were exposed as trivial. Then I imagined concentric circles radiating from ground zero: In the circle close in, people were profoundly changed, then further away people touched, less touched, and finally I imagined (and later met) the detached and disconnected. I entertained the deep hope for a new energy, a drawing in to faith communities sustained by the important truths that bind us.
To me it seemed so simple. We are sustained in three deeply entwined relationships: our relationships with each other; our relationships with our own futures; and our relationship to ultimate being, to the God of all being. It is the ultimate relationship that gives meaning and shape to the first two. Belief, I realized, is like water. If you let it freeze, something in you dies. If you fail to hold it, something in you withers. You keep drinking from it or you die in a desert of your own making.
I wrote my children that. I added that we are held up in ultimate relationship. So I invited them to choose to believe: Believe that we are here to practice integrity with humor and humility, and to experience the journey of life, including all its pain and joy. Believe that we are here to promote the Good, by respecting the integrity and favoring the health of all conscious beings, starting with our own. Believe we are here to recognize the reality and threatening nature of evil in an unfinished universe and to oppose it with character, intelligence, and courage. Believe we are brought here as children, and we are allowed to stay here to grow and become wise children.
I was changed by 9-11 because I saw a miracle happen when my fellow humans were caught in the descending glare of evil. It was a general awakening. Within the huge diversity of secular and religious perspectives that constitutes New York, I witnessed unity, kindness, and heartfelt resolve rise up from the ashes. The Holy Spirit entered Manhattan in force and stayed for days.
We Christians are called by our baptismal covenant to renounce the evil powers of this world. As our airplane headed home, I knew with certainty that my optimism about the human condition was well founded. We mortal humans were so designed that evil’s appearance will continue to illuminate and call forth the good in us.
When we Anglicans say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask the Lord to “save us from the time of trial.” In preparing for this Sunday, I came on a list of the firefighters and police who charged into those buildings only to die. Many climbed 70 floors carrying 100 pounds of gear. Reporting for duty that day and responding to the call defines “time of trial.” They were called to a trial and each of them answered the call with courage.
I think of the passengers on flight 93, Newark to SFO, who were also called to a time of trial. They, too, rose to the occasion and their courage undoubtedly spared the nation another disaster. Robyn and I flew in on United. And we have taken that very flight 93 home. We may well have taken it again. We were spared our time of trial.
I’m sure that little of significance really happens on pure chance. Were we led by “accident” to the very fire station where Mychal Judge had served as a Chaplain? I don’t believe that. Father Mychal, a Franciscan friar, was dearly loved by all the firefighters who knew him.
His picture is on the first page of those lost in the line of duty. A happy 68 year old face smiles out at us, looking natty in the NYFD’s dress uniform.
Father Mychal was helping people get out of the first building before it collapsed. When he learned that some firefighters were still trapped inside, he rushed back in. There he found a gravely injured firefighter; he leaned over the fallen man to administer the last rites, removing his own helmet.
Mychal died at the instant he administered the last rites.
The firefighters who knew him say that Father Mike would have wanted to be at the gates to welcome all the brothers who would follow him to heaven that day.
Father Myke’s white fire helmet was received by Pope John Paul on November 10, 2001.
May God hold fast the souls of all who fell that day, especially those who answered the call to duty:
And may we never forget…
WHEN, LATER, we returned to the site, we saw that it had become a pilgrimage. Note the girder cross (above), preserved by workers.
Later still, we happened to visit the WTC Site in time for a special Memorial ceremony – where I took these pictures.
It was a such solemn salute, much deeper than ordinary patriotism.
I kept the picture below ↓ taken right after the attacks when we took the subway as close to ground zero as was then allowed.
I emailed my children soon after:
“The last few days here have renewed my belief in the human capacity for heroism and virtue under duress. It is an honor to be among the New Yorkers. I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now. Evil has too often been excused or ignored or defined away. Yet it returns like a night flare on a battlefield, illuminating the configuration of forces. That terrible light clarifies everything. In its actinic glare, all the differences among the good melt into insignificance.”
Copyright © 2004, 2016 by Jay B Gaskill, all pictures were taken by the author, except for the Father Mychael and World Trade Center pictures which are from public domain news sources
This is based on a talk by Jay Gaskill for a Memorial on September 11, 2005 at St. Marks’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA — pictures and additional comments were added by the author in 2016.
 Robyn and I were familiar with flight 93, having taken it on earlier New York trips.