As we carpooled to our shift that morning, we heard on the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Centre, but we were not sure how serious it was -- there were no details at first, and I knew a small plane had once hit the Empire State Building. News of a second plane, of course, told us what was happening.
That morning, I silently held a co-worker whose father was supposed to have been on one of the flights – he wasn’t. We turned on the television in the break room and watched the towers fall like candles melting in fast-forward. We heard about the Pentagon.
At lunch I wrote these words and sent them to my Green friends:
We awoke to a different world Tuesday morning. Like all Americans, we have spent hours with our families and co-workers around the radio and television; we have mourned the loss of friends and acquaintances; we bowed our heads silently in memory of the dead.
This is a crucial moment for the American people. National crises usually lead governments to justify expanded military powers, greater prejudice, less liberty and equally vain attacks on innocent subjects of other governments. We must stand for a higher principle and not remake ourselves in the image of our enemies.
Rather than resume our routines passively and fearfully, we call on Greens and all Americans to organize their friends and neighbors for the common good; to donate blood for the wounded; to do chores for neighbors in mourning; and to continue fighting the poverty and injustice that has not gone away.
I regret to say those predictions held up pretty well over the next several years. In the next few months many people were obsessed with conspiracy theories, anthrax, extreme nationalism, anti-Arab prejudice, and palpable fear, which have mercifully abated as life went on.
Eight years later we have made County Kildare our home, and I read in the local paper that Catholic and Protestants will hold a joint service today at the 9-11 memorial in Donadea Forest. People here were moved to commemorate that tragedy with a two-metre-high replica of the World Trade Centre in the middle of the woods, engraved with the names of the dead. They planted an ash grove in a clearing to remember the event, and named a road through the forest after a local man who died that day. (Remember that most roads, even major ones, don’t have names here.) They even refer to it as 9-11, even though of course over here, September 11 would ordinarily be written 11-9.
To Americans who have heard 9-11 invoked with manipulative frequency, perhaps one more tribute is white noise. But how many American counties put up monuments to the 3,500 who died in the Irish Troubles? True, their deaths were a trickle over thirty years rather than a single televised event, but that also means an entire population lived with a tangible terrorist threat as most Americans – even after 9-11 – have not. And Ireland has only one percent of the USA’s population – the toll would be equivalent to 300,000 Americans.
But Ireland had it easy compared to most places. How many of us take a day to commemorate the millions who died in Rwanda? Or to the tens of millions who died under Mao Tse-Tung? Or the several thousand who were killed on September 11, 2001 by hunger in the Third World, and the several thousand more who similarly died every day before and since?
Let me also note that such services here would seem simple and strangely apolitical to most Americans. It would not occur to most people here to connect the attacks with the federal government’s invasion of Iraq, which is recognized as being unconnected. There will likely be no Lee Greenwood songs, no air shows, no pyrotechnics. Instead, neighbours will pray together in the woods, which always seemed to me the most appropriate place for prayer.