September 20, 2001
Terror, Grief and Awe
In past Yom Kippurs I've been known to bring a stack of books with me to synagogue, works both historic and intellectual, to focus on when neither prayer nor imagination can fill the time. Not this year.
The terror, grief and awe of Sept. 11 will preoccupy my thoughts for many long hours, if not days.
Let's take them in reverse order:
I feel no longing for an anthropomorphic God, a Schwarzenegger-like superhero who can reach down to stop Osama bin Laden. The awe I feel is for God as the miraculous force for good that works cooperatively through the actions of our fellow Americans.
That godly force was certainly activated in Jeremy Glick and the passengers of United Airlines flight '93, the doomed San Francisco-bound flight from Newark which crashed in the fields outside Pittsburgh.
For some 35 minutes on Sept. 11, before the airliner crashed, Glick, 31, repeatedly called his wife, Liz, at home in West Milford, N.J. Through those cell phone calls and others made by passengers, Mark Bingham, 31, and Thomas E. Burnett, Jr., 34, they learned that at least two other hijacked planes, American Airlines flight '11 from Boston, and American flight '77 from Dulles, had already attacked the World Trade Center.
Liz Glick arranged a 911 conference call between her husband and police. Glick told his wife of five years and her parents that he and other passengers, all over 6 feet tall, planned to resist the terrorists, who had already killed one flight attendant and had rounded up the passengers at the back of the cabin. A transcript from a black-box recording made during the flight appears to show chatter in the cockpit and someone saying, "Get out of here."
The three men said goodbye via cell phone to their loved ones. According to the Washington Post, Glick told his wife he hoped she would have a good life, and to take care of their daughter, Emerson, age 3 months. Within minutes, the plane went down.
There are always those who ask after tragedy, where was God? How did God let it happen?
But things look different after Tuesday. I could feel the paralysis coming over me as I merely watched tragedy unfold from the comfort of my living room. So I'm in awe that in such terrible moments, God works at all.
In four planes, passengers went to fiery deaths. But in one, they had a chance to fight back, and the miracle is that they did.
What is the nature of awe? I'm amazed that ordinary citizens, strangers armed with nothing but confidence in their relative size and physical strength, had the presence of mind to defy what seems to have been three terrorists who told them they had a bomb.
I'm stunned that passive passengers, in the midst of certain death, organized themselves and reached out to make a plan.
I'm in wonder that, knowing they had only seconds left, these men used those precious moments to save the leaders of our great nation. They heard the voice of God, and they listened.
If it were up to me, in a similar setting, would I?
Grief is easier to contemplate than to act upon. Like most of the world, I grieve for nearly 5,000 dead in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. I have stared for hours at the video repeats of the fuel-loaded aircraft with its human torpedoes plowing into a too-real towering inferno, wishing it were merely a movie I am seeing.
So much love comes through my sadness. I loved the World Trade Center, the romantic view of New York from its tower and the beloved Windows of the World restaurant. But I would gladly take my own suffering, to paraphrase Dryden, than that the nation grieve. Together, we mourn for the cream of the American investment industry located in it, so many of them now dead. And likewise we mourn the firefighters who dived into burning buildings to save them. When you say "Kaddish" next week, remember them.
How, indeed shall we remember all those lost? This brings us finally to terror. The talk of war scares me, and even more so, the warlike preparations of learning to find an enemy. Will we be able to protect the rights of innocent American Muslims, as the cry of retribution grows? Will we waste precious energy fighting each other rather than the terrorist foe?
Seems so. On Thursday, Sept. 13, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, leaders of the religious right, told their Christian Broadcast Network's "700 Club" audience that feminists, secularists, homosexuals and abortion rights activists were to blame for terrorist attacks.
Said Falwell, America's "secular and anti-Christian environment left us open to our Lord's [decision] not to protect. When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture . . . the result is not good."
On this Yom Kippur, I'll be contemplating the dangers outside our beloved nation, and those within.