Anniversaries of great disasters are commemorated mainly for the sake of the living. If the event was recent, an observance of its anniversary may somewhat console those who are still mourning, and that is a great benefit. The sting of death, as the historian Arnold Toynbee once said, is often enough less sharp for the person who dies than it is for the bereaved: “There are two parties to the suffering that death inflicts; and, in the apportionment of this suffering, the survivor takes the brunt.”
That has been bitterly true for those who were closest to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks because those deaths were so sudden, so violent and so untimely. Christians believe that those from whom they have been temporarily separated by death have been called to a life of glory that is without tears. All the same, as St. Paul told the Thessalonians, those left behind need to be comforted.
Moreover, in the case of 9/11, it is not just the families of the dead that need encouragement but also millions of people here and abroad, who at least in some small way share the grief of those families.
Marking an anniversary, whether privately or in a public gathering, can provide a degree of healing. It is appropriate, therefore, that President Bush should visit the sites of the terrorist attacks on their first anniversary—it is hardly thinkable that he should not.
As these lines are written in late August, it has been announced that the president will travel on Sept. 11 to the Pentagon, to the field in Western Pennsylvania where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed and to the place in lower Manhattan where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
At that site on the morning of Sept. 11, there will be a moment of silence at 8:46, the time when the first plane struck. Then a selection of citizens will read, one after another, the names of all the approximately 2,800 people who died when the twin towers were brought down.
That roll-call of the dead will surely evoke the memory of the goodness and self-forgetfulness that many of those men and women showed in their last hour. People trapped above the impact zone on the upper floors of the towers coolly phoned their families to profess their love and say goodbye. Firemen climbed flights of stairs on rescue missions that were doomed. Some office workers descending those stairs perished when they stopped to help handicapped colleagues.
These were lives that proved that love and courage can be stronger than death. People of faith are convinced that only God’s grace makes such heroism possible. They will think, therefore, that two lines from the 17th-century Christian poet George Herbert might serve as an epitaph here: “Blessed be the Architect whose art/ Could build so strong in a weak heart.”
There will be memorial services across the country on 9/11, but this anniversary cannot be limited to looking back. It must also and necessarily look forward because that disaster, unlike almost any other in peacetime, was intentional.
Catastrophes have ordinarily been caused by natural forces or accidents due to human failures—the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the eruption of Mt. Pelée in 1902, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1991. The destruction of 9/11 was, however, deliberate. On the morning of Sept. 12 last year Americans awoke to learn that they were at war. But with whom, and where, and how would it be waged? The answer was not clear then, and it is not clear now.
President Bush announced a war against terrorism, along with an effort to build a worldwide coalition to support this campaign. At first there seemed to be some success. In December, Washington was congratulating itself on defeating the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and expelling the Al Qaeda terrorists from that country—although, tragically, a significant number of noncombatant civilians were killed in the process.
But on the anniversary of 9/11, the new Afghan government remains highly unstable; the partners in the anti-terrorist coalition are growing ever more critical of U.S. leadership; the Al Qaeda leaders have not been found, much less immobilized; there is frightening talk within Congress and the administration of war with Iraq; and all the while Americans are continually assured by experts that new and more dreadful terrorist attacks are a certainty.
It is often said that 9/11 marked the beginning of a new age. It should also be said that if this age is to eliminate terrorism, it must be guided by the truth that Pope John Paul II repeated over and over in his message for the 2002 World Day of Peace: “No peace without justice; no justice without forgiveness.”