I live on the Brooklyn waterfront, just across the harbor from lower Manhattan. On that horrible morning on September 11, my father phoned me from Louisiana to tell me to look out my front door, the World Trade Center was on fire. It was, and I ran down to the basement to grab my reporter’s pad. Then I heard the explosion from the second crash and scrambled upstairs and out my front door.
A stunned and cursing plumber from the hospital next door screamed, “It was a passenger plane!” He must have that wrong, I thought. But he wasn’t wrong. None of us was conditioned to understand what was happening. Twenty minutes later, I was hustling across the Brooklyn Bridge toward the calamity—wending my way through the exodus out of the city—when a man with a radio screamed, “They’ve hit the Pentagon!”
That can’t be true, I thought; it’s too cinematic. I am a professional movie critic, and I tend to think of movies as simile and metaphor. Don’t most of us? The movies are our common language, the only interpretative framework any of us have for a disaster this spectacular. And as we all know—or knew until recently—real life isn’t like the movies.
Eight minutes later, I watched the first tower come tumbling down in a cataclysm of flame, concrete, and glass. I saw a tidal wave of dust and debris barrel toward us, and people on the bridge cower as a fighter jet flew overhead. Had I seen Bruce Willis standing next to me, would I have been surprised at that point?
Movie fantasy is now inadequate to describe our reality. No terror conjured by Hollywood could match what the people in our city saw and heard and felt in their bones that day.
Monsignor Ignace Sadek, the elderly pastor of the Maronite cathedral near the Brooklyn waterfront, went to the promenade park overlooking lower Manhattan and prayed for absolution for the dying as the towers burned. When the first building crumbled, and the terrible cloud of smoke, debris, and incinerated human remains began its grim march across the harbor, Monsignor Sadek remained at his post praying. The falling ash turned him into a ghost. Still, he stayed as long as he could. This is a man who came through the civil war in Lebanon, and he doesn’t run.
“People could see I was a priest,” he told me later (he is my pastor). “They ran to me and knelt at my feet, and begged for absolution.” Think of that: The people of this proud, defiantly secular city, driven to their knees in prayer, begging for mercy in a hot, gray fog. That is what purgatory must be like.
A Catholic colleague tells me a devout friend of his in Washington, D.C., always takes the same flight from Dulles Airport to LAX. But the weekend before September 11, he had a strong feeling that he should cancel his reservation. He fought it, but finally succumbed. The plane he was supposed to have been on crashed into the Pentagon.
I told my wife this story, hoping to cheer her up. It made her cry. “Why didn’t God warn the others, too?” she asked.
On the afternoon of September 11, I ran into an immigrant Arab Christian friend on a street in our neighborhood that is home to a number of Muslim-owned businesses. “Listen,” he told me. “If you ask these Muslims in these shops what they think of the attack, they will tell you it’s horrible. But that’s not what’s in their hearts. I’m telling you what I know.”
After a prayer service for the dead at our Maronite church (which lost six parishioners in the calamity), I talked to some young Arab immigrants about their fears of anti-Arab pogroms. One of the young men had just been deported from our great ally, Saudi Arabia, because he had been discovered praying to Jesus in a private house. These people argued that Americans shouldn’t stereotype Muslims. They said that they were friends with many good Muslims here.
“Tell me,” I asked them, “do these Muslims donate money to the terrorist cause?” All admitted that yes, many of their friends do.
I had been taking notes, and one of the group asked me not to use their last names. They were afraid of being physically harmed if their pro-American views became known in their predominantly Muslim neighborhood.
I think about that whenever I hear that Islam is a religion of peace. Tell that to the Sudanese Christians. Tell that to the Copts of Egypt. Tell that to East Timorese Catholics. Tell that to Christians anywhere in the world now living under Muslim rule.
Is the Church in America ready for the coming war? I fear not. Thirty years of bourgeois therapy and vapid mollycoddling about the teaching of virtue and sacrifice have done their enervating work. A Church that feeds its people with the insipid hymn On Eagle’s Wings is not a Church with the courage and will to defend itself and its civilization against renegade Islamists.
In 1683, the sultan’s troops were on the verge of taking Vienna, but Christian troops miraculously repelled them. Before the decisive battle, the Christian commanders—Poland’s King John III Sobieski, and Charles, Duke of Lorraine—went to Mass at a hilltop hermitage overlooking the front. Whatever hymn they sang at that desperate hour, one can be sure it wasn’t Gifts of Finest Wheat.
A small stir was made in the media about demonic faces photographed in the smoke and the fireball of September 11. But you probably haven’t heard about the crosses. My Lutheran uncle is an FBI chaplain. He phoned me from ground zero and told me a small field of crosses had been discovered in the rubble of World Trade Center 6.
They were a series of massive I-beams that had fallen from the top of the tower that was second to collapse. The beams landed in a peculiar fashion, as if they were crosses that had been planted upright by an unseen hand.
“You’ve got to see it,” my uncle said. “It’s incredible. There’s nothing else like it anywhere down here. Those crosses are the only symmetry anywhere in this mess. It’s a sign of order amid the chaos. Word is getting out among the rescue workers. People are making pilgrimages to the site.”
I couldn’t talk my way onto the site, but I did make contact with Frank Silecchia, the burly hard hat who found the crosses as he was searching for body parts. Silecchia is a born-again Christian who wept for 20 minutes when he first discovered them. Since that day, Silecchia says he has led many broken and mourning rescue workers to the foot of the largest cross, some 30 feet tall, to pray and be healed.
“Despite all of the evil poured onto these buildings, God is here, and He will not be defeated,” Silecchia told me.
A thought: The demonic faces evaporated in an instant, but the cross, steely and straight amid the tangled remains of evil’s residue, remained.