By Whaid Rose
For those old enough to recall them, the images remain vivid: the twin towers of the World Trade Center belching smoke and spewing debris; people leaping from the burning inferno to their death a hundred stories below; the buildings collapsing; terrified New Yorkers running, their clothes covered in ashes; the west wing of the Pentagon burning in the nation’s capital; in an open field in Pennsylvania, shocked residents viewing the scene of a downed airplane.
That disastrous day is now twenty years past. It doesn’t seem so long ago. Lest we forget, this milestone anniversary is a good occasion to pause and revisit September 11, 2001 and the lessons it has taught.
THE EVENTS OF 20 YEARS AGO
What began as a normal Tuesday morning for most Americans quickly turned unbelievably tragic.
At 8:47 a.m., American flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center!
About 15 minutes later, United flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, confirming that this was a terrorist attack–not an accident, as some first thought.
Attention quickly turned to our nation’s capital where American flight 77 slammed into the west wing of the Pentagon.
Then we watched in disbelief as the World Trade Center’s South Tower completely collapsed.
Just when we thought we’d seen it all, our attention was arrested by reports of United flight 93 crashing into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania!
Finally, as expected by then, the World Trade Center’s North Tower crumbled to the ground at 10:28 a.m.
OUR RESPONSE TO WHAT HAPPENED
There were no words–just shock, disbelief, and fear. One need not be a former New Yorker who’d been in the Twin Towers as I had, to feel this deeply. The thought that terrorists had stolen in among us and carried out this calculated plan of death and destruction shook us to the core and left us with a sense of naked vulnerability.
Times of tragedy have a way of bringing out not just the worst in people, but also their best. These events of 9/11 exposed the evil of which human hearts are capable, but also showed the kinder and nobler aspects of the human spirit.
We wept for people we did not know, and sent money to survivors we’d never met.
Many stood in lines for hours, unsolicited, to donate blood! More volunteer workers came to New York City in the following hours and days than are ever there in any normal year.
A Manhattan shoe store threw its doors open and gave tennis shoes to people running from the burning buildings!
PEOPLE CALLED UPON GOD!
People openly called upon God, talked freely about faith and religion. Journalists and talk-show hosts quoted Scripture!
A nearby church filled and emptied six times that day; people yearned for solace, a place away from the chaos, just to be with God, to pray.
Amazingly, partisan politics gave way to unity and solidarity as Democrats and Republicans stood together in prayer and support for our nation.
Hero status was returned to those who deserved it, including fire-fighters, police officers and paramedics—instead of Hollywood actors and sports celebs.
GROUND ZERO PERSPECTIVES
This collective jolt back to reality only happens when a nation finds itself at “Ground Zero,” the term that soon attached to the Lower Manhattan epicenter of the 9/11 tragedy.
According to the online dictionary, Ground Zero is “the most basic elementary level of anything.” It’s the story of Vince Lombardi telling his discouraged football team, “Gentlemen, this is a football!” It’s what old folks meant by “getting down to brass tacks.” It’s boiling life down to its barest essentials.
That’s what most people instinctively did in the days following. Beyond the shock and grief, there was a return to a “basic elementary” approach to life.
LESSONS WE LEARNED ABOUT LIFE
Thereby, we gained a truer sense of the real enemy. We learned that a person’s humanity isn’t determined by their skin color or political affiliation, and that we really do need each other.
We were also made to see that there are some things we can’t control, and forced to acknowledge that there are some enemies US Intelligence cannot protect us from.
That’s what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted to Congress when asked if the Department of Homeland Security, the new Federal Agency created in response to September 11, could guarantee the safety of all Americans. To his credit, Rumsfeld told Congress, “I’m sorry, but there’s no guarantee.”
That’s because life at its best is fragile and uncertain. We’re here today and gone tomorrow. In a certain sense, we’re never far from Ground Zero.
WE NEED GROUND ZERO PERSPECTIVES AGAIN
Such perspective is needed again now as we grapple with the challenges of the Global Pandemic.
The events of September 11 unfolded in a matter of hours and we then tried to pick up the pieces and move on. The Pandemic, on the other hand, just keeps happening—like September 11th in slow motion!
As the covid shock wears off, many are drifting toward cynicism, fear, and suspicion. So much so that wearing or not wearing a mask has been turned into a political statement, and individual rights valued over and above love for neighbor.
Thus the need to return to Ground Zero basics, where stories of fire fighters and first responders running into burning buildings to save lives without care for their own sober us, and the heroism of the passengers on United flight 93 gives us pause.
THE PASSENGERS ON UNITED FLIGHT 93
Learning that their country was under attack and their San Francisco flight was aimed at Capitol Hill instead, they determined to stage a counter attack to gain control of the cockpit.
They knew their plan might not work, but reasoned it would be better to die trying than make no effort to avert greater catastrophe. As a result flight 93 was the only one of the four planes hijacked that day which never reached its intended target!
The bravery and selflessness of these men and women, we must never forget. The memorial at the Pennsylvania crash site stands as a monument to courage and true patriotism, pointing us to what matters most in life.
If anyone onboard flight 93 understood what life is really all about, it was Todd Beamer, the leader of the pack that stormed the cockpit.
A PARTICULAR GROUND ZERO PERSPECTIVE
We know his story because of the phone call he made in the final moments of that flight, detailed in his wife’s book and in numerous articles written about his heroic actions that day.
A Wheaton College graduate and former baseball player at Fresno State, Todd Beamer boarded flight 93 in Newark, New Jersey that morning for a business trip to California.
He was to return the next day to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his first date with his wife, Lisa, who was then pregnant with their third child.
Realizing that the plane was hijacked and headed for Washington DC, and seeing the dead body of the co-pilot in the aisle near the cockpit, Todd knew exactly what needed to be done.
He tried using the phone near the seat-pocket in front of him to call his wife. But with phone lines jammed that morning, he was unable to reach her, and was greeted instead by an operator.
It turned out that the operator was a Christian woman who shared his wife’s first name—no doubt a comforting glimpse of God’s rainbow in the rain.
When the operator learned what was happening, she connected the call to FBI agents. After repeating the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, Todd asked the operator to call his wife and children and tell them he loved them.
Then the last words she heard Todd Beamer say were, “Are you guys ready? Let’s Roll!” Minutes later, after much commotion, everything went silent.
Beamer and other brave passengers obviously understood that the most important things in life aren’t things. Rather, they are love for God, love for others, and living for a cause greater than ourselves.
TO LIVE FOR WHAT MATTERS MOST
It is to this greater cause that the events of September 11 beckon us. To live for what matters most, not only seek what we want from life, but give what life wants from us, is to truly live.
Such living doesn’t inoculate us from the harsh realities of terrorist attacks, nor does it erase the painful memories and lingering grief so many live with. Let’s face it, September 11 was human depravity on display, and the emotional trauma still remains twenty years later.
But over time, experiences gained and lessons learned can become guiding lights in this present darkness.
They include the reminder that death is a reality of life. The fact is that whether by some natural cause or virus or at the hands of terrorists, we’ll all die someday.
As the general told his fearful soldiers on the beach in Normandy: “There are only two kinds of people in this world: those who are dead, and those who are dying.”
We’re never more ready to live than when we’re ready to die. That’s the overarching message of the hymn sung three days after 9/11 at Washington’s National Cathedral, where many dignitaries, including four former US presidents, gathered for a national memorial service.
A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD
“A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the grand hymn of the Protestant Reformation based on the 46th Psalm, includes this verse:
“And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him,
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him!”
An earlier verse in which Jesus is portrayed as the answer to a “world with devils filled” was omitted, likely for interfaith reasons. Yet, with the clarity and simplicity we always expected from him, and with the whole world watching, the aged Evangelist Billy Graham preached the good news of hope and salvation found only in Jesus Christ.
TO THOSE STILL SUFFERING
To those still suffering from the trauma of 9/11, to those for whom this milestone anniversary opens old wounds and awakens real fears, for those just trying to cope with life in a fallen world now compounded by a Global Pandemic, and for those who identify with the caption that reads, “I’m tired of being resilient; I just want to rest,” Jesus holds out this beautiful invitation:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly (Matthew 11:28, The Message).
Jesus’ free offer is yours for the taking. 9/11 was indeed “a watershed moment in American history.” It changed our way of life and how we view the world. Jesus will give you a whole new life, plus the promise that He, somehow, is “making all things new,” even our old, tired, burned out 9/11 world.