Has it really been a decade? Yes… ten years have passed since that awful day. Ten years have passed since time, for a moment, stood still, as events that irrevocably altered the course of thousands of lives, and indeed, of our entire world, unfolded before our eyes.
The enormity of some horrors cannot be reduced to words; they demand that we bear a silent witness because we lack a vocabulary sufficient to encompass them. No matter what we say or write, our description is always incomplete and inadequate. 9/11 is such an event.
And yet, it is human nature that as we ponder the depths of our conflicting emotions about that day- horror at the senseless violence and the hatred of life that provoked it, grief at the lives lost and the voids created where loved ones should have been, awe at the heroism and selfless sacrifice displayed by so many- we search for words and images that evoke meanings around which we can organize our thoughts and reach some form of understanding.
For me, the central image of 9/11 is towers. Towers reaching high into a clear fall sky. They are symbols both of our nation and of the souls lost on that day. But more than that, they represent what we are meant to be as human beings. We are each called to tower mightily, and be a beacon of hope in the world.
The Egyptian author and playwright Ali Salim introduced me to the importance of towers as symbols in an essay that appeared shortly after the attacks in Time Magazine. Writing about the terrorists who perpetrated the atrocities, and the societies that produced them, Salim noted:
“these extremists are pathologically jealous. They feel like dwarfs, which is why they search for towers and all those who tower mightily. We must admit that we failed to teach these people that life is worth living. These extremists exist now, and will exist forever, so the question before us must be, How can we defend both our lives and theirs?”
Obviously, Salim was writing about specific men and a particular historical event in his essay. Yet his insights have broader applicability.
As Pope Benedict XVI has observed, today “a spiritual desert is spreading – an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair.” This desertification of the soul is occuring here in America too. As a result, in Fred Bauer’s words, our nation’s public life is now characterized by almost “pathological” levels of “anxiety, social alienation, partisan cynicism, and civic despair.”
The interior emptiness, fear, social alienation, and despair haunting modernity produces many figurative dwarfs- men and women whose spiritual and emotional growth has been stunted or warped in some way. These conditions create the self-loathing that propels the pathologically jealous. And so the pathologically jealous prowl the world, always searching for towers, of one sort or another, to ruin, topple, and destroy. To be sure, the vast majority of these individuals do not engage in acts of violence- their nihilism and sense of hopelessness is expressed in other, often more subtle, ways.
The modern world needs more towers. The challenge laid before us individually is to transform ourselves into towers rising into the sky through the way we live. Today, people of good will must, in the words of George Weigel, “live lives of moral heroism against the conventions of the age.” This personal witness, rooted in love for one another and in recognition of our sharded dignity as human beings, is ultimately how we teach the hopeless that life is worth living. It is how we replace alienation with community; emptiness, with purpose and meaning. It also extends an open invitation to everyone else- because every soul can, and, indeed, is meant to, tower mightily.
In so doing, we both honor the dead and demarcate the path to a more decent common future. Because towers reaching into the sky convey hope – a hope that the empty anomie and nihilism infecting modernity can, and will, be bested. That the dangerous precipice of the present will be navigated safely. That our shared destiny is a garden; not a wasteland.
When they go searching for those who tower mightily- let them find you.