Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in the November 2001 print edition of Crisis.
In 1789 George Washington prayed in St. Paul’s Church, on what we now call lower Broadway, on the day of his inauguration as the first president of the United States. The churchyard was already old. On September 11, 2001, several new corpses were lying on the old graves. Then quickly a temporary morgue was set up in a nearby hotel. All that the Founding Fathers stood for was contradicted in a thunderous attack on the heart of the city that calls itself the capital of the world.
Grown children had grown accustomed to taking prosperity for granted and had often scorned the virtues that created the prosperity. The frenzied celebrations of the third millennium were largely conspicuous for their cheerful banality. There were fireworks but no great blazing works of art. A generation after men went to the moon, celebrants did circles on Ferris wheels; in London a dome was built with no particular purpose in mind and was hastily filled with just about everything except an altar to God. The general euphoria was tinged with melancholy, almost like that of Alexander with no more worlds to conquer. What to do with endless peace? Some said that history had ended. Then came an airplane flying so low in a city that usually does not notice noise of any kind, that I had to take notice.
Crowds screamed and ran when the first tower fell; when the second came down, many just sat stupefied on the ground and groaned. Those buildings were not widely loved by New Yorkers. In the 1960s when Penn Station was dismantled, they were built with the rebarbative euphoria of the “International School,” whose architects and sycophantic political backers defied everything that had gone before. An architect famously complained that the towers “tilted” the Manhattan skyline.
They stood, nonetheless, tall evangels of great enterprise, and at night when their cold steel was a shadow and their lights flooded the harbor, they could stun sullen eyes. Those who saw them collapse felt a collapse in themselves. About 25 percent of the onlookers are said to have had post-traumatic stress, a syndrome that can be traced back to the silence of our first ancestors as they left Eden in shock. Helpless reporters, kept at a distance, heard from eyewitnesses responses like that of Aeneas when Dido asked him to recount the loss of his ships and sailors: “Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem” (Oh queen, you bid me retell a tale that should not be uttered).
The horrific shock treatment of September 11 has rattled three modern assumptions. The first was the politicized dismissal of natural law. George Washington in his pew at St.Paul’s believed in the inalienable right to life. The primacy of natural law was vindicated when people at the World Trade Center struggled to rescue one another, often sacrificing their lives to do so. A man leaving his apartment to go to work in one of the towers heard his wife crying that she was going into labor. Instead of going to his office, he took her to the hospital and watched his baby enter the world as his building collapsed. The baby’s first act was to save his father. In a world of carnage in Bethlehem, men once heard the cry of the baby who saves all those who call upon Him, through all ages, even as late as September 11, 2001. The thousands of lives crushed on that day will make it harder to say that life doesn’t count.
Secondly, the holy priesthood has been a victim of modern assault. God’s gift of priestly intercession had recently become an object of incomprehension and mockery. Books were written on how the priesthood might be reformed out of existence. A saint once said that a priest is a man who would die to be one. On September 11, a chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, Rev. Mychal Judge, was crushed by debris while giving the last rites to a dying fireman. Members of his company carried Father Judge to New York’s oldest Catholic church a few blocks away and laid him on the marble pavement in front of the altar. Each knelt at the altar rail before going back to the flames. I stayed a while and saw the blood flow down the altar steps. Above the altar was a painting of Christ bleeding on the cross—the gift of a Spanish king and old enough for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to have prayed before it. More than local Catholic history was encompassed in that scene. For those who had forgotten, the Eucharist is a sacrifice of blood, and it is the priest who offers the sacrifice. September 11 gave an indulgent world, and even delicate catechists, an icon of the priesthood.
The fall of the towers quaked modern man’s third error: his contempt for objective truth. The whole world said that what happened on September 11 was hideously wrong, and suddenly we realized how rarely in recent times we have heard things that are hideous and wrong called hideous and wrong. So many firemen wanted to confess before entering the chaos that we priests gave general absolution. They would not have wanted to confess if they didn’t know the portent of the moment; nor would they have made the sign of the cross if they thought existence was a jumbled quilt of inconsequential opinions. A rescue worker next to me boasted that his lucky penny and his little crucifix had saved him when he was tossed ten feet in the air by the reverberations of falling steel. He got up, brushed himself off, and went back into the bedlam. If he was superstitious, he was only half so. The Holy Father has often been patronized by savants who thought that his description of a “culture of death” was extravagantly romantic pessimism. They have not spoken like that since September 11.
A crowd of people blinded by smoke were panicking in a Wall Street subway exit. One man calmly led them to safety. He was blind, and he and his seeing-eye dog knew every corner of that station. One might say—and if one were rational, one would have to say—that each generation, culturally blinded in ways peculiar to its age, is offered a hand to safety by people whose holiness is often considered a handicap. At the World Trade Center, rescued men and women were heard to use words like “guardian angel” and “savior.” Days later, confession lines were long and congregations stood in the streets outside packed churches. One waits to see if grace will build upon grace.
Perhaps it would be naive to hope that a new Christian consciousness suddenly and smoothly will arise. On a train a few days after the attack, I sat next to a teenager wearing the ritual garb of his atomistic tribe, backwards baseball cap and such. When I recounted how rescuers had kept rushing into 240,000 tons of collapsing ironwork without any apparent thought for themselves, he replied in a voice coached by the sentinels of self-absorption: “They must be sick.” It will take more than one September day to humanize a generation.
We were attacked on what was to have been the day of the primary elections for the city’s mayoral office. One police-man, speaking through a gas mask, gasped how all this chaos made all those candidates and all their “issues” seem so small. (That is only the gist of what he said; he used sturdy monosyllabic Tudor metaphors appropriate to the passion of the moment.) I do not see that problem being quickly cured. William Clinton, still unaccustomed to his reduced place in life, arrived on the scene the day before the president. The spectacle of his pumping up oceans of empathy in front of cameras carried bad taste to a length he had not managed even in the White House. Sobered by the day’s events, the media virtually ignored him. As a chronicler said of Napoleon, “He embarrassed God.” Within days, an organist from another state faxed offers of special fees to parishes whose organists could not manage the number of funerals. A company from Maine advertised hand-held devices that send sonic vibrations to soothe grief.
Such inanities of the human race can only be understood as little burps from Beelzebub’s inferior minions. Beelzebub did not win the day against courage. In a World War II speech, Churchill paraphrased St. Thomas Aquinas in describing courage as the foundational quality for all the virtues. The politicians of his day who wanted compromise with evil do not share a place on his plinth, and nations that were neutral then do not boast of it now. When asked about evacuating Elizabeth and Margaret Rose during the blitz, Queen Elizabeth famously said that the princesses “will not leave unless I leave, and I will not leave unless the King leaves, and the King will not leave.” On September 11, through the roaring and crashing and screaming, it may be that many began to hear Christ the King as if for the first time: “I am with you always until the end of the world.”
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