Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In the Wake

(Image Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of the tenth anniversary, it’s driven home for me how imperfectly I’ve been able to wrap my mind around the enormity of 9/11. Often, I’ve felt disquiet at the failure of my compassion. The endless repetition of the footage of the smoking towers and of their collapse places the disaster too far from any human scale. At that remove, I retreat into the contemplation of statistics. I start asking questions of cold calculation and distanced, self-righteous judgment: why don’t we commemorate the same day, September 11, as the anniversary of the CIA-backed coup that in 1973 destroyed the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and ushered in a reign of state-sponsored terror? What’s happened to the memory of the thousands who died in Bhopal in the wake of a cyanide leakage from a Union Carbide plant?

And then I hear the individual stories: a friend in his apartment in the West Forties, not knowing for ninety minutes whether his partner would ever come home from a downtown office. The terrifying and mysterious contingency of another friend and his one-night-stand heading to breakfast together at Windows on the World, looking up as they approached the building to see the first plane hit. The same friend hours later, walking with a shattered stranger across the Williamsburg Bridge, hoping somehow to make it home; at the top of the bridge, puzzled and alarmed at an indistinct, roiling sea of black where the pavement should have opened out below them at the Brooklyn end; then realizing, as they pressed on, that they were looking down at the afternoon light reflected off the hats and coats of the Hasidim, who milled along the street passing out water to those fleeing Manhattan on foot.

The real enormity of 9/11 isn’t the enormity of hatred that planned and executed the attacks--which pale in comparison to a dozen other atrocities of the last century. The real enormity is not even the deaths of the victims, outnumbered as they are by the victims of those other spasms of demonic cruelty, as by a score of natural disasters within living memory. It’s not the self-imprisoning impulses to revenge, which have taken so many hostage in their souls, and that have led America into two supremely ill-considered and pointless wars over the last nine years.

One of the options for last Sunday’s Scripture readings in many Christian churches was the passage from Genesis 50 in which Joseph speaks grace to the brothers who threw him into a well, then drew him out to sell to merchants passing through the wilderness, then went home to lie to their father that all they could find of him in the desert was a blood-soaked coat—only to find themselves years later owing him their lives and utterly in his power. Gripped by fear at the thought that after their father’s death he’ll finally exact vengeance, they beg for mercy because they project their own vengefulness onto him. And he replies, “Am I God to punish you? You worked evil against me; but God turned it to good. You have nothing to fear from me.”

The real enormity of 9/11 is the enormity of evil and suffering being turned to good: the acts of generosity by which survivors and witnesses comforted and supported one another; the acts of grace and forgiveness that have transformed the memory of trauma into pleas for healing. It’s in these that I find my compassion freed up, and finally I can weep for the lot I share with the living and the dead.

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