Gretchen R. Crowe, editorial director for periodicals at OSV, shares insights she gathered from an…
Remembering 9/11: ‘A dark day in the history of humanity’
Like millions of others that awful day, I spent hours on Sept. 11, 2001, glued to the TV screen watching the same nightmare image sequence repeating over and over: the big airplane lumbering toward the towering building, the crash, the huge billow of flame and smoke, then the stories sandwiching downward one by one as the giant building collapsed into itself.
Who can forget 9/11? But along with recalling the experience and mourning the dead, we need to ask ourselves: What lessons have we learned from 9/11 and what followed?
“A dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity” Pope St. John Paul II called it at the time. Unquestionably, it was all of that.
The first shock came at 8:46 that Tuesday morning when American Airlines Flight 11 ploughed into floors 93 through 99 of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Seventeen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 struck floors 77 through 85 of the South Tower.
Altogether, 2,606 people — not counting the terrorists who hijacked the planes — died at the World Trade Center. Among them were 344 firefighters and 71 law enforcement officers who sped to the scene to help survivors. The first certified fatality was a Catholic priest: Father Mychal Judge, OFM, a chaplain with the New York fire department who was killed by falling debris.
But there was more.
At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon across the Potomac from the nation’s capital, killing 125 people — 70 civilians and 55 military personnel. And at 10:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93 plunged into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 44 on board. The plane was 20 minutes’ flying time from Washington, D.C., where the hijackers apparently hoped to take out either the U.S. Capitol or the White House. But passengers fought back and stormed the cockpit, leading the hijacker at the controls to send the plane into a fatal nosedive.
In all, nearly 3,000 innocent people died that day, along with 19 hijackers who were members of the al-Qaida terrorist organization. Several thousand more have died since then from attack-related injuries and illnesses, including exposure to toxins at Ground Zero.
Anxious worshipers filled churches on 9/11 to pray for the victims and the nation. Bishops issued statements and celebrated special Masses. Speaking the next day to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul decried the “savage cruelty” of the attacks and said he had offered Mass that morning for “the helpless victims of this tragedy.”
Beginning the ‘war on terror’
The government’s response came quickly. Proclaiming a “war on terror,” the United States began preparations for an attack on al-Qaida, then based in Afghanistan. But the targets of an aroused America soon broadened to include Iraq and its dictator Saddam Hussein even though Saddam had no connection with 9/11.
Pope St. John Paul II gave quiet but real support to America in Afghanistan on the grounds that the invasion was a legitimate act of self-defense. But Iraq was another matter. The pope opposed the American-led military action there and even sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, a former Apostolic Delegate to the U.S. and a friend of the Bush family, to try to dissuade President Bush. The two men met on March 1, 2003, just days before the invasion, but Bush insisted that Saddam was amassing weapons of mass destruction and had to be stopped.
Both military actions were short-range successes, but both had long-range consequences that no one — including, apparently, U.S. planners — foresaw.
In Afghanistan, al-Qaida fled from the invading Americans, and the U.S. ended up fighting the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic group that then ran the country. Defeated, the Taliban turned to terror attacks. Acting on the orders of President Joe Biden, the last U.S. combat troops left the country in July of this year, and now the Taliban has overthrown the Afghan government, creating a humanitarian crisis for the citizens of Afghanistan.
In Iraq, a U.S.-led coalition won a relatively easy victory. Saddam Hussein was captured, tried and executed. But no weapons of mass destruction — the stated reason for the invasion — were ever found. Biden has promised to have U.S. combat forces out of Iraq by the end of this year, even as the fundamentalist Islamic State (ISIS), a source of numerous terror attacks over the years, prepares a renewed push to take over the country.
Urging a moral response
Here at home, 9/11 undoubtedly created an unprecedented sense of America’s vulnerability in a dangerous world that, in turn, has produced some concrete results. Among these: a sprawling new government agency, the Department of Homeland Security, along with heightened airport security procedures that are now a routine part of air travel.
But terrorism and security today are by no means the obsessions they were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and Americans worry more about COVID-19 and the Delta variant than about hijackers.
Two months after 9/11, the U.S. bishops published a document called “Living with Faith and Hope after September 11,” which, read now, reflects both the confusion and the strength of the nation’s response at the time.
So, for example, when speaking of Iraq — then already in the Bush administration’s crosshairs — the document takes for granted the reality of Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. But it also includes a still-valid cautionary note: “Military action may be necessary [but] it is by no means sufficient to deal with this terrorist threat.”
The bishops wrote: “In these difficult days, our faith has lifted us up and sustained us. Our nation turned to God in prayer and in faith with a new intensity. This was evident on cell phones on hijacked airliners, on stairways in doomed towers, in cathedrals and parish churches, at ecumenical and interfaith services, in our homes and hearts. Our faith teaches us about good and evil, free will and responsibility. Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection show us the meaning of love and justice in a broken world. Sacred Scripture and traditional ethical principles define what it means to make peace. They provide moral guidance on how the world should respond justly to terrorism in order to reestablish peace and order.”
For me, though, the most moving 9/11 message both then and now was one that was left on our answering machine that afternoon. It came unsolicited from a man in South Africa, where our youngest daughter had spent a year teaching as a volunteer in a rural mission school.
His message was very simple: “I just want to say how sad I am for America.”
Millions of decent people were sad for America that day.
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.