The National Catholic Review

My mind stopped somewhere short of Washington’s resolute war planners. The equation of a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eyeI have no heart for it. Nor does my mind close around the vague and faceless enemies that we have sent our aircraft carriers to pursue in the Middle Eastor farther east among the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan, already rubble after what the Russians did there 10 years ago. What barren land, what orphaned children can we force another country to pay up?

All I have room for is grieving. I start seeing the people trapped in the towers above the plane crash, holding desperately to white hot steel before they can stand it no more and plunge a hundred floors to the ground and death. (Some of these may have been the 70 or more employees of the Windows on the World restaurant, almost all of whom died at their post.) Again and again I keep imagining those 343 firefighters ascending bravely into the innards of the two Trade Center towers, making their way upward into the foul darkness. Or I keep picturing those descending still to meet them, some 3,000 to 5,000 others who failed to make it outuntil the moment when the structures simply collapsed in on themselves in terrifying clouds of dust and red-hot smoke, effacing all semblance of a human figure. Even Dante could not imagine a hell where all had been effaced, ground into nothingness.

There once was a timeit seems like another world agowhen the United States was exceptional, a place of safety and security. We never knew firsthand the devastation Europe experienced during two world wars; it is only lately that we have been able to remember and begin to take in the Holocaustthe dehumanization and gassing of six million Jews. We never really absorbed the story of Russia’s soul-numbing suffering through the gulag archipelago. Or think of the way Beirut destroyed itself.

No, we did not experience the vast numbers of missing persons the generals removed from the social fabric of Argentina or Brazil, much less the systematic massacres of Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Or think of Africa: the berserk tribal bloodletting in Rwanda, Congo, Sudan and elsewhere. And since then the survivors have been consumed by AIDS. Almost every continent devoured itself, except, finally, our own. By any comparison, with the recent exception of Oklahoma City, we have been blessed by good fortune and a kind of providential invulnerabilityuntil Sept. 11, when everything was suddenly different.

While we were looking for a multi-billion dollar defense against nuclear ballistic missiles, we have been undone by simplicitya low-tech brotherhood aimed at seizing and turning a jet plane into a portable gasoline bomb. Next time they will come in a rental van, or carry a small briefcase.

If you visit any town within commuting distance of New York City, you run into missing people, 10 here, 40 there, or again 15 or more over there. Just a month ago I was down in my old hometownin Rumson, N.J., next to Fair Haven, a short call from Lincroft and Middletownand the place felt like the dead had been chosen randomly by a madman. Just two blocks from my sister-in-law’s home stands the now fatherless home of Ginny Bauer and her three young children, David (16), Steven (14) and daughter Jackie (12). David Bauer, age 45, graduate of Villanova and former pro-football player for the Cardinals and New York’s Giants, never got out of his office high up in the brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald. So many of Mr. Bauer’s cohorts did not make it home that Cantor Fitzgerald could be the title of the local cemetery.

I remember it took my brother’s sons, who lost their father years ago at about the same age, a good decade to begin to heal from the shock. The plane crash that took my brother’s life was capricious, but neither deliberate nor evil. But Sept. 11 shakes the foundations, tends to unhinge and dissolve one’s metaphysical map of the territory.

David S. Toolan, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Recently in Of Many Things