We all remember where we were when we first heard about the tragedy now known as 9-11. As events unfolded, people across this country and around the world crowded around televisions and watched with horror as video replays showed the footage that is now so familiar to us all: one of the towers already ablaze when, suddenly, another plane appeared and careened into the second tower; people jumping from the buildings; an enormous dust cloud that seemed to chase people through the streets; then, the towers collapsing upon themselves. The watching faces registered disbelief and fear. Some were weeping. Others were calling loved ones.
There was a universal expression of grief and outrage. In the days that followed everyone had to work a little harder to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Terrorist groups with names like the Taliban and Al Qaida, so familiar to us now, were new to our ears. Oh, and what were they so angry about anyway? We were confronted with questions about the nature of evil and madness. But as the weeks passed and life returned to some sense of normalcy, the next emotion that many of us felt was a desire to do something. But what?
For me, the answer came in the form of a radio interview with men and women who had volunteered at Nino’s Restaurant, a non-profit organization dedicated to feeding the NYPD, the FDNY and recovery personnel working at “Ground Zero.” After hearing the broadcast, I wondered if Nino’s might be open to hosting a group of student volunteers. Contacting Nino’s directly, I left a message. Several days passed with no reply and I began to think that nothing would come of my idea. Eventually, however, they did call and, while they had never had a group of student volunteers, they seemed open to the possibility.
Arriving in New York with fourteen students, the restaurant staff scheduled us to work in two groups. Since scheduling the trip, however, Nino’s had been mentioned on CNN, NPR, in The New York Times and in various other news outlets. All of this publicity had given rise to a feeling that we would arrive in New York only to discover that our services were not needed. But this was not the case. They were, in fact, desperately short of volunteers. Even so, the Nino’s staff initially greeted us with reserve, considering high school students a dubious contribution to the volunteer effort.
But that impression rapidly changed. The boys were assigned the heavy labor, working in the warehouse or outside unloading trucks. The girls were given the task of preparing food and serving it. After the first day, Nino’s warehouse manager, George, could not contain his admiration for our students. Regarding expletives as an article of speech and cussing as an art form, George exclaimed, “I’ve never been to [profanity] Alabama, but you people are the best [profanity] people I have ever met!”
Nino’s was a sort of microcosm of our society. The officers, volunteers and staff reflect the diversity that is America. But in the wake of 9-11, it seemed that all of the things that serve to divide us as a nation were stripped away and a spirit of unity prevailed. More than once I saw tears fill the eyes of grown men when they read the identity badges our students were wearing. “Alabama?” One NYPD officer asked in disbelief, his Bronx accent pronounced. “You guys came all the way up here to do this for us?” He was visibly moved by the thought. And it is perhaps in scenes such as this that one truly discovers the purpose of volunteering. It was not only about providing nourishment for the body, but food for the soul. Men and women, emotionally drained by the depressing work associated with Ground Zero, found encouragement and a sort of refuge at Nino’s. The opportunities to share the Gospel with these people were greater than any I have experienced before or since.
Interestingly, however, I think all of our students would agree that they were the ones encouraged by the experience. The officers and staff quickly developed affection for our group. An incident that occurred late one night during our first visit to Ground Zero illustrates this best. The observation platform was closed and policemen were asking onlookers to move away from the barricades, when one officer shouted, “Hey, it’s the kids from Alabama!” He immediately ordered the barricades moved to allow our group to pass. When other people tried to follow, they were instantly reprimanded with “Get outta here! Only the Alabama group!” The policemen took the time to escort us onto the deck. They seemed to enjoy the interaction with our students, explaining the furious activity of men and machinery below.
At that time, not only was Ground Zero closed to the public, but several city blocks around it were also closed. To reach it we had to pass through several security checkpoints. Over the next few days, many of the students would see Ground Zero from inside the perimeter, delivering food to Engine 10/Ladder 10 Fire Station. A pensive silence prevailed on the return trips. The students understood from first-hand experience what the average television viewer could not: the magnitude of the destruction and the unnatural smell that characterized the place. The experience will not be forgotten.
So what’s the take away?
There were many lessons to be learned from 9-11, but for me the most important one echoes in the words of the great Athenian statesman Pericles:
“Happiness depends on freedom, and freedom depends on courage.”
Pericles spoke these words in his famous Funeral Oration commemorating the dead after the first year of the Peloponnesian War. Lincoln, who well knew the Funeral Oration, modeled the Gettysburg Address after it: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Both men elevated tragedy into a higher purpose, reminding their countrymen that the price of freedom is sacrifice.
What has often been called the “American Way of Life” is rooted in Judeo-Christian notions of law and freedom. That way of life is not common to the rest of the world. It has been purchased and is preserved with blood. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, Americans seemed to understand this. But in the fifteen years since that terrible day, political and corporate corruption, greed, the desire for power at any cost, perverse social agendas, and an almost complete disregard for the Rule of Law have given way to self-hatred, hatred for one’s neighbor, anti-Americanism, division, a loss of national identity, and a worship of all that is not holy. As a consequence, we have become a shallow, hateful, silly people of whom it can no longer be said: “We hold these truths to be self evident.”
What truths do we, as Americans, now hold to be self evidential? More fundamentally, what do Americans think truth is? The answers to these questions once defined and united us as a people–but not now. Now there is no longer a national consensus on truth. Indeed, there is not even a consensus on what it means to be an American. This is simply illustrated: contrast the experience of working at Ground Zero that I describe above, the sense of unity and purpose, with what we will see today on NFL football fields across America: Colin Kaepernick and the equally misguided people he has inspired, will once again take a knee during the national anthem. Why? To show “unity,” they say. With what or with whom? It’s a divisive rather than a unifying act.
Truth is not abstract. It is universal and timeless. It is rooted in the Person of Jesus Christ: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) Apart from him, America has become all sail, no anchor, and most are left without any substantive moral and intellectual framework to interpret the horror of 9-11.
On 9-11 + fifteen, has there ever been a time when America needed God more?