I think it goes without saying that the tragedy that occurred nine years ago when two planes slammed into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, transcended the petty political bickering of the time in a moment of community grief.
How soon we forget.
This is not meant to be a sentimental recount of my experiences of that day, or a self-righteous indulgence of my anger over everything that day has since been used to justify. But in light of the controversy of the past month over Park51, and the choice by a few U.S. citizens to respond with actions of intimidation and hate on the anniversary of 9/11 this Saturday, there are some things that I think need to be said.
I remember the images on the television: the billowing smoke rising from those huge structures of glass and steal glistening in the bright morning; the speechless news anchors sitting in stunned silence at their desks, oblivious for once to the cameras trained on them; the slow-moving crowds of people leaving their offices and their cars and walking through the streets, shoulder to shoulder, away from the wreckage. It is perhaps this last image that lingers longest in my mind. While most remember the towers smoldering and falling like some cinematic Hollywood climax, I remember what it looked like to see every gender, age and race of people all pressed together in that surging crowd, all of those faces stripped of the masks of detachment, professionalism and cynicism that we so often wear. They were frightened, and confused, and sorrowful, and their souls were laid bare in their gazing eyes and slack-open mouths. Despite my own grief, I remember this image as one of community and togetherness, an image of heart-breaking beauty. There was beauty in the world, even on that day.
And that beauty rippled outward in unexpected ways, as over the following week spontaneous memorials and makeshift shrines for the dead and the missing began to appear all over the city and the country. On my college campus, a rusty, run-down chain-link fence suddenly became a space transformed by colored ribbons, photographs, drooping flowers and burning candles, all fluttering together as though alive in the slight breeze. People were kinder to each other, and the days were quieter. Professors on campus organized group discussions, while other faculty turned their attention to supporting and promoting counseling sessions for students and teachers alike; we all had our ways of coping with the shock and grief of that morning. For some, such as myself, it was an experience that utterly transformed our lives — it was, for me, the moment that the theoretical pacifism of my childhood became something palpable and real and vital, the only sane and loving response to the violence and tragedy of the world.
How soon we forget. We are, as a culture, not very good at grief. We spend a great deal of time trying to escape sadness and death, and anything that might remind us of those things — old age, solitude, poverty, dark nights, cold winters, the otherness of strangers. I do not need to trace for you the history of war and fear that grew out of the events of 9/11. We already know very well how the puppets of power turned our sorrow to anger, our anger to revenge, and our revenge, finally, into fear and xenophobia. I remember well that it was not fear that I felt on that morning as I watched the towers fall; it was an aching regret and helplessness that drove me to reach out, to run towards danger, to plunge into my local community and connect, to seek out the strangers in my dormitory hall and sit with them in tears and silence, simply so that we could be together.
This should have been the true legacy of 9/11, this sudden re-membering of our communities. We had an opportunity that day to keep our eyes firmly on beauty and hope, and to learn how to grieve together in ways that could transform denial, anger, sorrow and fear into empathy, connection, forgiveness and wholeness. We had a chance, stripped down to the raw and vulnerable at the heart of each of us, to learn to be tender and gentle with our humanity, and with the humanity of others.
Politicians across the political spectrum, both left and right, have tried to tell us that the last nine years of war and partisan patriotism is the best we can do. But they have also worked to keep us in a perpetual state of unhealed and unacknowledged grief that gives rise to a sense of victimization and paranoia. Every exhortation to “remember 9/11″ is couched in terms of imperial imperatives and the proclaimed trade-off between security and liberty. We have turned politics in this country into a kind of sadomasochistic freak-show of bloated anxieties and imaginary demons. If we are not fleeing terrified of “foreigners” into the arms of the Military Industrial Complex, we’re busy rejecting every plea for community reconciliation as a weakness and acquiescence to the Right Wing.
Right now, protestors are preparing to take to the streets this Saturday in a campaign of intimidation and threat. Their protest is an attempt to prevent the building of the Park51 community center not through legitimate legal means (of which there are none), but by making Muslims feel unsafe and unable to practice their religion openly in the streets of Lower Manhattan. (Elsewhere in the U.S., a few fearful Christians far from the site of contention will gather together to burn the holy texts of a religion they do not understand.) These protests are acts of grassroots, citizen-sponsored terrorism. Like all acts of terrorism, they grow from a sense of desperation and helplessness — people are in pain and they are afraid, and because they don’t know why they are in pain or what is making them afraid, they look for a scapegoat, or a cause, that will give them a sense of control and purpose.
In the meantime, counter-protestors are organizing and mobilizing their own mobs in preparation to confront and, presumably, shout down all those who disagree. For these counter-protestors, the cause of individual rights and the freedom to worship and practice openly in this “Land of the Free” takes precedence above all else. Their counter-protest is an attempt to show solidarity with their Muslim friends and fellow citizens, and I have to admit that part of me appreciates and supports them in this aim. Yet I cannot stand with them this time. Despite noble intentions, such a response shows a decided lack of both compassion and creativity. To respond to an act of protest and intimidation with yet another act of protest and intimidation cannot, in my mind, foster the engagement and reconciliation that so desperately needs to take place. There are times when civil disobedience and public demonstrations are acts of political power and affirmations of community strength. But this is not one of those times.
So what is an appropriate response? Though I will not be in New York City this Saturday, my heart will be with a small group of Buddhists who will, as in previous years, be holding a simple interfaith ceremony on the banks of the Hudson River:
The service is both Buddhist and interfaith. At its center is the traditional Obon ceremony for the dead, loosely translated as the Floating Lantern Ceremony. Rice paper lanterns are inscribed with the names of the dead, lit with candles, and floated out to sea.
The Obon ceremony comes originally from a Japanese Buddhist custom, part of a three-day-long festival in late summer honoring the departed spirits of the ancestors. Within this beautiful ceremony are echoes of the Shinto religion native to Japan, as well as the Buddhist appreciation for the mutable, transitory nature of life. Imagining those flimsy paper lanterns drifting delicately out into the vast darkness of the ocean, I am reminded of the Buddha’s final words: “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.” (Though others believe his final words were, “Make of yourselves a light.”)
There is also a sorrowful irony in this image of the burning paper lanterns, inscribed with the names of our dead, as I read about the plans of Rev. Terry Jones and his tiny congregation in Florida to burn copies of the Qur’an on Saturday:
Supporters have been mailing copies of the holy text to his Gainesville church of about 50 followers to be incinerated in a bonfire on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Much of the debate about this misguided, fear-filled pastor centers, once again, on questions of liberty and security. Is the burning of holy texts a hate crime, or is it protected as an exercise in free speech? Will this act endanger American troops who are fighting abroad — and should we put the safety of our soldiers above the rights and freedoms of our civilians back home? These questions imagine a strict dualism between liberty and security, but it seems to me this is, in the end, a false dualism. It is within our liberty that we discover and cultivate our security: it is through our freedom to reach out and connect authentically and respectfully with others that we ensure the community bonds and strengthening relationships that will keep us safe and sustain us through times of difficulty and uncertainty, pain and grief.
In Gainesville, Florida, a handful of people will gather to set fire to paper inscribed with holy words. In New York City, on the banks of the Hudson river, another group of people will come together to do the same. What great difference lies between these two acts!
Here in Pittsburgh, I will be lighting a candle of my own, and reading the astounding poetry of the Qur’an (in English translation), as well as the poetry of those Sufi mystics who inspired me, when I was still only a teenager looking for answers, with visions of beauty, longing and connection that eventually led me to my Druid path. In this small way, I hope perhaps to begin the process of bridging the great gulf between acts of hatred, and acts of honor. I hope to affirm the sacred connections we share even with those who disagree with us or threaten us. I hope to participate, by doing my small part, in the transformation of our community not by trying to repress or intimidate those who lash out in fear and anger, but by learning how to reach out to them in fellowship and forgiveness.
I will also be sharing some excerpts from the Qur’an publicly on my blog, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, committing the rich depth and insight of these poetic verses to the ephemeral, etherial medium of the internet, a place where these words cannot be touched by fire and yet will burn with light. I invite others to do likewise. Or, if you do not blog, find your own small ways to transform these times of polarization and dissonance into opportunities for contemplation and connection.