Remembering 9/11

I had been at work just half an hour.  A good friend and colleague, a man who had been a rookie cop in Dallas on another tragic day nearly forty years before, John called me to come up to the conference room because a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center.  I immediately walked to the conference room and sat with him and two others, and began to watch the live coverage.  John and I surveyed the scene, and looked at one another, but I’m not sure which of us said it first:  This had been an attack, and could not not have been accidental.  No sooner had those words been spoken when from the right of the frame, appeared another airliner, and while the impact was concealed by the two buildings, the explosion that erupted made clear what had happened.

The other people gathered in the room let out a collective gasp, and one woman screamed in horror.  John and I looked at one another across the table, and we began to tick off a list of potential targets.  John is an easy-going, jovial man with a fine sense of humor, but this morning he had reverted to his game face.  Due to his responsibilities within the organization, and his years of experience, others in the room deferred to him.  One woman looked at him, tears streaming down her face, and asked John “Who did this?” John, by then on his feet and walking toward the door, paused placing his hand on the woman’s shoulder as an act of comfort, and said: “I don’t know Darlin’, but if I was guessing, it must be the same bunch from ’93 back to finish the job, and they may not be done yet.”

Like most Americans, I watched the events of 9/11 unfold from afar, yet the nature of the events left the unmistakable impression that this was the beginning of an escalation in the endless war of hatred directed at our country.  This hatred of our country is rooted in a clash of civilizations.  Our nation has been so successful for so long, and has become the center of developments in popular culture and media that it had become pervasive.  For a culture like Islam, the images they see of our nation are those which lend to the assessment that we are corrupt and defiled by their standard of measure.  These images make it all the easier for the demagogues who hold power in the Islamic world to demonize the West and spawn militancy against us.  Jihad means “to struggle” or “to resist,” so that in their view, this war against us is justified insofar as they are fighting against us in what they believe is an effort to preserve their way of life against what they see as a defiled and morally corrupted civilization.  They have been taught by demagogues to view the expansion of the Western culture as a malignancy to be excised as a matter of self-defense.  The lessons of 9/11 must include a recognition that the collision of these two civilizations may well have been inevitable, and our only choices are to adopt theirs or to defeat them.

Ten years later, we are marking the day with memorial services and events intended to remind us of all the fallen.  We rightly mark the heroism of all those who answered the call one final time on that infamous day.  Their acts in opposition to the war against us must not be forgotten.  For me personally, the events aboard Flight 93, that went down in a field in Shanksville, PA, are the things from which we must take heart concerning 9/11.  That airliner was full of ordinary Americans who did on their own the most outrageous thing:  Rather than wait for the inevitable, they took actions directed not only at the chance of saving their own lives, but with the knowledge that whatever the outcome, they would surely save others.  That moment of decision, in appraisal of their immediate situation, should be considered carefully by every American as this clash of civilizations continues.  What are the choices? Shall we fight, or wait to be slaughtered?   Shall we pretend that if only we’ll huddle quietly, we will be left alone and alive?  Shall we recognize that we are now the front line in a war between two civilizations, and act in the name of ours?

These are the questions with which the passengers aboard Flight 93 were confronted on that day.  Ten years later, these are the questions our nation must answer once again.  Will we wait until the fight comes to us?   Will we abide the abandonment of our allies living under this same threat?  Will we hunker in fear and inaction, pretending to ourselves that we can survive as a culture living as prisoners in our own nation?  Would we rather live another short span of time in relative safety knowing that the death we’re avoiding is really inevitable?  I believe the greatest memorial to those who died on 9/11, or on battlefields around the globe ever since, lies not in the laying of wreaths and the erecting of statues or markers, but in recognition of the simple, yet life-affirming choices we must make if we are to survive as a nation.

At the beginning of our nation, one famed patriot had already considered these questions, and his answers provide the true meaning of the choices and actions undertaken on 11 September, 2001, in the skies over Pennsylvania:

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” (Patrick Henry – March 1775)

These words now stand as a testament to the recognition that one must not yield for the sake of temporary comfort or safety in the face of an inevitable war.  The choices made by the passengers aboard Flight 93 stand as a stark reminder of how Americans must always answer this fundamental question, and it is an answer encapsulated in the words of a man who had said his goodbyes, and who turned with others to fight against an inevitable doom, so that if doom it would be, it would come on their terms with everything they could muster.   Todd Beamer, in plain-spoken recognition of what laid before him, uttered those now equally famous words:

Let’s roll!

When I remember 9/11, it is this simple declaration that I recall.  It stands as the only valid answer to the question laid before us, and as Americans, we must know its real meaning and take to heart all that it implies.  Justice requires it.  Our survival demands it.

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