I was in my office on the morning of September 11, 2001, and the phone rang. It was one of my leading church members, who said: “Go home and turn on the TV, something has happened.” The urgency in her voice was enough that I dropped what I was doing, and a short time later I was standing by the television with my teenage children, watching the news unfold on CNBC: smoke rising from the North tower, news reporters not sure what they were reporting on yet. Watching the screen, at one point I saw something, an airplane flying low, and followed it across the screen with my finger. Then an angry plume of flame burst out the other side of the second tower. It was such an unreal moment, I remember making the remark to my boys, “This is science fiction.” We stayed glued to the news through the reports of President Bush’s brief statement outside a school in Florida, the attack on the Pentagon, false rumors of bombs at Foggy Bottom, evacuations of the White House and the Capitol (preceded, a bit bizarrely as it now seems, by brief coverage of Ted Kennedy on the Capitol steps making an announcement about an education bill), then more news about a fourth plane having crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, and the shutting down of all air traffic nationwide. By now I was also on the phone, trying to track down where some of my people were. Living a short driving distance from Washington, I knew some people who worked downtown, and others at or near the Pentagon. It was late evening by the time everyone had been accounted for. None of our church people were directly affected, but one who worked at a government agency missed her car pool after their building was evacuated, and wound up, after walking quite a distance, on an overcrowded commuter bus, getting home hours late. Another young man had only lately been involved in a construction project at the Pentagon; and within a day we learned that one of our neighbors, a young woman who lived less than half a mile away, had lost her life, leaving behind a husband and small children. Within the week, one of our members received some business mail, sent from her downtown office, returned as undeliverable; the addressee was at Two World Trade Center. The skies were quiet.
By early evening I was back in the office, still making phone calls. I had a home Bible study to conduct not far away, starting at seven o’clock. Just before leaving, I heard sound directly overhead, quite loud: I figured out, and confirmed later, it had to be two jets escorting Air Force One. It was the only air traffic in the country that evening,
After Bible study, late that night, I felt what must have been a commonplace experience in the United States that evening: physical vulnerability. Something in me did not want to risk getting undressed for bed. I resisted that feeling, strong as it was. To do otherwise would have been a victory for terror, the very real palpable terror that had gained everyone’s attention that day.
Within the day, certainly within the week, it was obvious how consciously the attacks had been coordinated for maximum symbolic effect. From the date, which matches the universal emergency call number; to airlines named American and United; to targets comprising centers of financial, military and (though this was apparently targeted but not hit) political power. A demonstration that the greatest power in the world could be brought, at least temporarily, to its knees, by a handful of people armed with nothing more sophisticated than box cutters.
Many heroes were made that day. Images of policemen and firefighters heading toward danger in order to get others out caught all our attention, drew the country together. Later, those images of brave men and women in rescue gear, risking their lives to save lives, became deliberately morphed on our television screens into the image of combat soldiers. I wondered how many people noticed the difference.
It seemed likely (though it did not happen) that a spiritual awakening could arise in the aftermath of these events. I wish it had. Unlike many preachers in the country, I made a conscious decision not to change the text or topic of the following Sunday’s sermon. There was no need, and I’m still glad to have used the particular text I did that day. It still has something to say to us as Americans, or at the very least to those of us who consider the speaker of these words our ultimate authority. My text was Matthew 10:16: