In 1984, when cancer killed my father, I was 23. My brother was 18. My mom was 52. I had always known, as surely everyone must, that the notion that bad things only happen to other people was a lie. My father's death brought that home; it instilled that notion in my bones.
And that, I think, is why the popular reaction to 9/11 made me angry. It still makes me angry.
I get angry when people say 9/11 changed everything because it made us realize we are vulnerable. The people who didn't think before 9/11 that we were vulnerable just weren't paying attention. And I get angry when people say they want to return to “normal.” Because what a lot of those people mean by “normal” is that they want to return to the days when middle class Americans were exempt from the rules that have always applied to everybody else—the loss, and the fear of loss. Those people want to return to the illusion that middle class Americans deserve more security than other people, because we're better than them. They want to return to the days when the common state of humanity was not our concern.
And I get doubly angry when so many of those folks claim to be Christian. Because our Lord and Savior did not think He was above the common suffering of humanity. The Christ whose name we take voluntarily gave up His security, suffered with the most ordinary of people, and ultimately suffered for the most ordinary people in a horrible way whose most horrible aspect may be that it is utterly, completely routine.
Anybody who thinks “normal” means exempt from routine suffering has not understood Christ.
The years that came after my father's death brought home something else...something that, 17 years later, helped me put 9/11 in context:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You....
When I awake, I am still with You.
In the years after my father's death, people—and God—were good to me. I was humbled by the many good things I received that I did not deserve. Not humbled enough, certainly; but humbled.
What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.
When I think about my anger on 9/11, I think of one of my angry heroes, George Orwell—who left the security of England to fight with common Spaniards against the Fascists, and who was wounded nearly-mortally in the fight—and what Orwell wrote about one of his angry heroes, Charles Dickens:
In the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
So I'm trying to do something useful with my anger. I'm trying to be generously angry. I'm trying to be angry enough to let my soul give up its smelly little orthodoxies, and to give up anew each day the notion that I am exempt. There's still a member of my church who lives in the cab of a truck that doesn't run; I'm angry at myself for leaving him there since last October; I'm trying to be angry enough at myself to get him out of that damn truck before another winter comes. Because a world that lets him winter in a truck is also a world that would let me, or my wife, or my kids, winter in a truck.
I hear the calls for unity on 9/11. I hope they mean real unity; unity with those who sleep in trucks. 9/11 was bigger than any of us, and it brings us together in one way or another, whether we like it or not. But precisely how it brings us together is, as the passengers of Flight 93 will always remind us, up to us. So let us not be afraid; let us remember that God knows every hair on our heads; let us fight in the open and not be frightened; let us try again to live up to 9/11's highest call, the one issued by Todd Beamer as he contemplated that he and the other passengers of Flight 93, and even the hijackers, had all taken the wings of that same sunstruck morning, and all shared a common and eternal human vulnerability:
(Excerpts from: Psalm 139; Luke 12; George Orwell, "Charles Dickens" (1939), Inside the Whale and Other Essays (1940))