Fireman among the rubble from the Twin Towers. Creative Commons CC0

Looking Inside the Fear

A year after the attack on the Twin Towers, no geopolitical explanation has managed to satisfy Americans in search of an ultimate meaning. The reflections of a keen observer.
Lorenzo Albacete

From the very beginning, the events of September 11, 2001, had a strong religious dimension. All terrorism, in a certain sense, has a religious basis, as the very word suggests. “Terror” is a religious experience. Anthropologists of religion describe it as the experience of “dread” before the unexplainable. A terrorist attack does not intend to bring about the military defeat of the enemy. It aims to bring about a paralyzing fear. It is a theatrical, ritual, liturgical event–a symbolic gesture, so to speak, suggesting or pointing toward the abyss of nothingness.

Religious Patriotism
It is not surprising, therefore, that the reaction of the American people to the terrorist attack of September 11th last year had a strong religious dimension to it. Indeed, the American story, the “narrative” through which the American people define their national identity and purpose, has always had a strong religious undercurrent to it, even after its fundamental terms (election, liberty, mission, etc) were secularized. September 11th awakened this dimension to an explosion of “religious patriotism,” as seen, for example, in the spectacle of the members of the House and Senate on the steps of the Capitol in Washington singing “God Bless America.” The President immediately assumed the status of the nation’s Priest-Prophet-King, with a popular approval rating soaring above all political possibilities. (Remember that, at the beginning of his term, opponents questioned even the legitimacy of his election.) Almost every speech sounded like a sermon, appealing to sacrifice for the highest human values, defined as identical to the “American way of life” (life, freedom, democracy, and the free market!). Religious advisors–Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic–appeared on the scene and became an integral part of the group preparing the American response to the attack. The American people were given frequent lessons about religion and peace, religious tolerance, and the importance of religious liberty. Churches were packed, and articles about religion and life filled the pages of newspapers and magazines—from the most intellectual journals to the purveyors of entertainment and show business gossip. One of the nation’s most popular television comedians almost decided to resign from his program, but when it re-aired again a week after the attack, he explained his decision to continue almost in terms of religious duty, and devoted the week’s show to an exploration of the attack’s “ultimate meaning.” The Mayor of New York and other political leaders encouraged the American people to reject all intimidation by praying more to strengthen the spirit of the nation, and spending more to strengthen the economy.

Outside the United States, this reaction was considered amazing, and some treated it with cynicism and scorn. And yet, it allowed the American people to recognize that the attack involved far more than a geo-political and economic struggle, that all such explanations for it were an immoral reduction of its ultimate significance.

The Nation’s “Mood”
Now, a year later, this “religious” reaction to the attack of September 11th has not entirely disappeared. In many ways, things appear to have returned to a more normal situation, but that is deceiving. The economic uncertainty on the part of employers and investors, for example, is not only due to the recent scandals in the financial world, but to a change in the nation’s “mood” that is still very difficult to assess, since it suggests an uncertainty at the deepest level of the experience of national purpose. This is precisely the level of the religious sense. The decision of the television networks, leading newspapers, and the largest corporations to suspend all advertising on the day of the anniversary (at an enormous economic cost) must amaze those religious leaders who were convinced that the country had lost all sense of the “Sabbath” rest and its equivalent in other traditions. (Not that long ago, this was a practice in Catholic countries, for example in Latin America, only on Good Friday. It has never been a national tradition in the United States.)

Sacred Space
The part of the Pentagon destroyed by the attack has been repaired, and all activity resumed, now even at a higher pace than before as the nation continues its military response, apparently involving a war with Iraq. In New York City, however, the empty space where the World Trade Center stood has become a place of silent pilgrimage. Each day, thousands of Americans and visitors walk slowly and silently along the promenade that allows them to peer into the hole where the Twin Towers once proudly soared into the sky. The names, photos, and personal items of those whose remains were never found are pinned on walls and fences around the “sacred space.” Even more revealing, throughout the city, many New Yorkers seem afraid to look in the direction where the Twin Towers were once visible. Someone compared it to the fear of looking into the room in funeral parlors where the corpse of a dead friend or close relative is being prepared for viewing. This is, of course, evidence of the continuing experience of religious dread, even after a year has passed from the initial shock. A passenger on a plane landing at La Guardia Airport (the closest to the Manhattan, with an approach path offering stunning views of the skyline) said: “I used to look down at the City and feel a great excitement, as if I was being energized by the awesome view, but now I feel a great emptiness. In fact, I don’t even want to look, but I still feel compelled to glance at it quickly and look away, as if I had seen what should not be seen.”

On the week of the attack’s anniversary, the prestigious non-commercial television network PBS aired a two-hour documentary called “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero: The Spiritual Aftermath of September 11th.” I was involved in the preparation of this program, during which we interviewed over three hundred people about the religious implications of the attack. There was not a single person with whom we talked that did not acknowledge that their experience of what happened was, in one way or another, an experience of Mystery. (An atheist told us that it was a challenge to her atheism, since the attack was entirely the deed of men.) Toward the end of the program, the questioning began to concentrate on the possible meaning of the shocking view of two of the victims holding hands as they jumped to their death from one of the Towers. At the end of the show, I was able to summarize this discussion in terms of the judgments made by the Movement: The gesture of those who fell to their deaths holding hands has two possible meanings. We can see it as the tragic confirmation that death and the victory of Power have the last word about human life, friendship, and the desires of the heart. Or we can see it as a heroic affirmation, a symbolic one (“sym-bolic” means unifying, bringing together; while that which destroys through separation is called “dia-bolic”), a gesture that points to the awareness of a Mystery containing the ultimate word about the meaning and value of human life, a Mystery greater than death, the Mystery that makes human friendship and solidarity possible and, in the end, triumphant–the Mystery of Being revealed as Charity.