God and Man, 20 Years After 9/11

Once upon a time, everyone recognized the importance of marking a shared history as a nation and a people. That consensus is progressively eroding.

Sailors from the USS Somerset bow their heads in prayer at the 20th anniversary ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Sept. 11, 2021 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The nation is marking the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Jeff Swensen
Sailors from the USS Somerset bow their heads in prayer at the 20th anniversary ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Sept. 11, 2021 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The nation is marking the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. Jeff Swensen (photo: Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is an opportunity for looking back, not just about what happened that terrible day in New York, Washington and Shanksville, but also about what we thought and wrote at the time.

Twenty years ago in the Register, I voiced hope that the experience of vulnerability and mortality at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in rural Pennsylvania would rekindle three things: an American sense of the fragility of human existence, of reliance on God and, finally, of a readiness to eschew political correctness and polite equivocations to call right “right” and wrong “wrong.”

My hopes, I’ll admit, were also accompanied by a nagging doubt that the impact of what occurred on Sept. 11, 2001 might be dulled by the sheer speed of what took place that day in the space of about eight hours. What happened was traumatic, but one way people cope with trauma is by distancing and denial — and we were already a society practiced in the art of distancing and denying death. 

Twenty years later, I fear my doubts overcame my hopes.

Instead of a recovery of dependence on God, the past two decades have seen a doubling down on individualized “autonomy.” Instead of a greater sense of God in our lives, secularization has accelerated by leaps and bounds, especially among the young, the fastest growing cohort of “nones” (religiously unaffiliated persons) ever in American history. Instead of seeing the consequences of blurring moral lines, especially in the name of cultural relativism, political correctness increasingly intimidates people from calling right “right” and wrong “wrong.”

These reflections came to me as the anniversary of 9/11 approached. What galvanized my decision to go back to them were two things immediately associated with that anniversary.

One was a column by David Brookes in The New York Times, trotting out the hoary myth of religion-as-threat-to-civilization that has been evoked by secularists ever since the 17th century to privatize religion. Unlike my hope that 9/11 be a wake-up call to America’s secular drift, Brookes seems to have hoped that drift continue. “What is the 21st century going to be about? If you had asked me 20 years ago, on, say, Sept. 10, 2001, I would have had a clear answer: advancing liberalism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, a set of values seemed to be on the march — democracy, capitalism, egalitarianism, individual freedom.” 

As he tells it, the ensuing two decades have been the rise of religion among “authoritarians” fighting that “liberalism” and, presumably, the continuing value of that still-besieged secularized liberalism.

For Brookes, it also seems that there are few, if any, sincere and principled opponents of secularized liberalism. He clearly thinks most of those who have glommed on to that opposition have done so out of jaded motives for power rather than principle. In the end, Brookes’ vision appears to one of bad guy, cynical, power-hungry autocrats coopting assorted religious fundamentalists (AKA “deplorables”) versus good guy, enlightened-but-beleaguered secularized liberals, coopting the adjective “democratic.” Our century will be about that conflict.

While secularized liberals have consistently banged the drum about “religious war,” Rod Dreher suggests Brookes might be right: the 21st century could be a conflict of “religious war,” though not in the sense the Times columnist might frame it. Harvard University’s chaplains, having chosen an atheistas their “chaplain president,” let slip the unspoken secret that secularized liberalism is, in fact, a faith. It’s a worldview built on assumptions taken on faith, not proof, and therefore has no claim to be regarded as any more “scientific” than any other Weltanschauung whose first principles are assumed rather than proven. 

If secularized liberalism is, indeed, a faith, then Brookes is right in imagining our day to be in the midst of religious war — hot in some places, cold (but not any less real) in much of the West. But the fault lines of that conflict may not lie where Brookes assumes them, i.e., between the West and the rest (any more than the naïve assumptions of the world’s Fukuyamas about “the end of history,” which ended about 5:20 p.m. Sept. 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers and that theory both crumbled).

No, the fault lines may very well lie in the middle of the West between, as contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski suggests, the understanding of “democracy,” “freedom” and life itself espoused by the Western civilization that acknowledges its roots in Greece, Rome and Jerusalem, and its ersatz substitute, claiming the “Enlightenment,” using those same terms while eviscerating them of their traditional meaning and content. 

If that assessment is correct, then Brookes and I share a fundamental disagreement about the significance of 9/11 — a day that should have rekindled an American awareness of “one nation under God” versus one of a human fraternity in which the deity is a lurking threat that is, at best, a tolerated private extra. 

Consider: twenty years ago, the picture “American Pietà” of New York firefighters carrying the dead body of Father Mychal Judge out of the World Trade Center, where he rushed to anoint the dying, became almost as iconic as raising the flag over Iwo Jima.. By 2013 clergy were barred from the Boston Marathon Massacre and, by 2020, the response of many American Catholic priests to the COVID-19 pandemic was voluntarily to restrict access to the sacraments. 

Brookes’ idea of “religious war” as an outcome of 9/11 was one reason I went back to reflecting on my take of those events. The other was the “millennialization” of 9/11.

Any look at the feature stories of this anniversary reveals a considerable amount of press attention about how 9/11 for twenty-somethings is about as real as the first moon walk, Kennedy’s assassination, V-E and V-J Days, or the assassination of Lincoln.

That should be no surprise. Since the one ineluctable characteristic of history is that it only gets bigger, its events receding into its ever-expanding content, the fact that 9/11 will enter the fog of history should surprise nobody. What should surprise is that we are so concerned about that phenomenon, especially because I suggest we are for the wrong reasons.

History being “a pact between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn,” as Edmund Burke observed, the phenomenon of historical events being lost to lived, shared experiences is nothing new. What is new is that this surprises us because it suggests we are losing a sense of history, especially communal history.

Once upon a time, having and marking a shared history as a nation and a people was a priority, recognized as such by both elites and the man in the street. The need for a social glue of common heritage in which we could all take pride was recognized by all.

That consensus is progressively eroding. American history is increasingly being replaced by particularist — and contradictory — histories (a debatable term in the plural), while a shared common understanding is being progressively chipped away: consider the controversy over the “1619” and “1776 Projects.” 

Without getting into the historical merits of those particular “projects” (or the very notion of history as “project”), the focus on the “millennial take” on 9/11 ought to be concerning, because it speaks of the attenuation of belonging to my concrete situation, shorn of any tradition or history. 

Whether or not Emily or Jacob (the most popular names of 2001) remember 9/11 really doesn’t matter. If Emily’s or Jacob’s consciousness expands beyond navel-gazing they should realize that, as Americans, they are part of something bigger than their individual memories and draw some common conclusions from which we should live as a people. 

Generations of Americans have no lived experience of July 4, 1776, but have drawn a common heritage and succor from that shared historical moment. The same might be said of April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered, ending the Civil War, or May 8, 1945, when the Thousand Year Reich ended at 13 years. 

That we need to say these things, warning about the danger of attenuation of the sense of belonging to something beyond myself and my lived experience, threatens not just nation but especially Church because the latter, as the Mystical Body of Christ, really does include the living and “those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith” to Purgatory or Heaven. 

It means I am part of something bigger than me. It also gives the lie to the Millennial slogan about being “spiritual but not religious,” because any spirituality worth that name rests on a tradition which, again, inserts one into something bigger than one’s self.

Twenty years ago, I’d hoped we would recover a sense of mortality, dependence on God, and right and wrong. Today, I hope we start with recovering a sense of God, period, as well as of a world surpassing the horizon of my nose.