It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since 9/11. It seems like only yesterday and yet a lifetime ago. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives—in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania—and the shadow of that day looms still. As we mark this anniversary, we asked three people these questions: What are your thoughts on where we as a nation have been, and what is your prayer for where are going?
Here are their answers.
‘Peace be with you’
I was a senior in high school on 9/11, and, oddly enough, I was in a class called 20th-Century History when the towers came down. Our teacher, keenly aware that what was happening was a world-changing type of event, rolled out a cart with a television on it and tuned in to the live news coverage. I’ll never forget what he said that day: “What we’re seeing now is 21st-century history. “
He was right, and, sadly, it was just the beginning. The brief moment of unity many of us felt in the first few weeks after 9/11 quickly dissipated, our country was at war, and xenophobia and Islamophobia intensified. I found myself struggling with the question of how justice could be rendered without perpetuating cycles of violence and hatred. Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 20:19 gently guide us to the only right way to respond: “Peace be with you. “
Strikingly similar are the words of the standard greeting among Muslims: As-Salaam-Alaikum, or “Peace be upon you. ” My prayer for the world, now 20 years after the events of 9/11, is that we dig deep and resist the temptation to be vengeful and violent, seemingly justified by grief and indignation. May we warmly embrace our brothers and sisters from other faiths in the same spirit of that Arabic greeting, which so closely mirrors the words of Christ.
The Slow Work of God
As I reflect on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Teilhard de Chardin’s prayer “Patient Trust ” grounds me: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. “
I’m drawn to the story of the scarred “Survivor Tree. ” A few brutal months after the September attack, a mangled pear tree, still living, was wrenched from the ashes of the fallen buildings and given to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. True to God’s slow work, after nearly a decade, in 2010, the tree had been nurtured enough to be replanted near where the Twin Towers once loomed.
Three years after that, in 2013, its new branches were strong enough to give seedlings to the newly wounded places in our world. Recipients of these tiny new pear trees include the shattered landscapes of mass shootings, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, and bombings. No matter the horrific struggles still smoldering, the tree we turn to, Christ’s cross, can be seen as the original Survivor Tree.
The ache of 9/11 will never fade. It shouldn’t fade. But we can find hope and resilience in the trees cycling through season after season as years pass. At this 20th anniversary of such darkness, we can trust the slow work of an orchard growing, of buds growing brighter, opening into blossoms. The slow work of God.
Hours after the second tower in New York City fell, a television reporter from one of the networks approached a woman on a street in Paris for her reaction to the terrorist attacks earlier that day. She offered a broken smile and said, “Today we are all Americans. ” It was a singular comment from a nameless person in Europe, but there was a sense that the international community wanted to shoulder some of the pain. We weren’t a collection of disparate countries, but one wounded world.
After the dust settled, two wars followed—and our reputation within that international community suffered. Our own behaviors shifted as well. Over the ensuing years, unfamiliarity with Islam made way for something far more dangerous: suspicion. But as Christians, we are called to love our neighbors. There is very little room for negotiations there.
My prayer is that we model our behavior on St. Francis of Assisi, who was unintimidated by wars and battle lines to build peace with the sultan. I pray that we remember the people who lost their lives on 9/11. I pray, especially, that we meditate on these words from Pope Francis, who commemorated their sacrifice: “The names of so many loved ones are written around the towers’ footprints. We can see them, we can touch them, and we can never forget them. “