The one memory that will stay with me, when all other memories of September 11, 2001 have faded, is how obscenely beautiful the weather was. There really should have been more portents. Fierce, fiery warriors battling in the clouds. Graves yawning and yielding up their dead. At least a two-headed cow, or the ghost of William McKinley.
But no, the New York sky was barely touched with clouds when the Twin Towers crumbled to the ground. Just as clear was the Arlington, Virginia sky as American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the western side of the Pentagon, and over Stoney Creek Township, Pennsylvania, as the hijackers of United 93 plowed their Boeing 757 into the ground to prevent the passengers from taking over. And it was just as beautiful in Omaha, Nebraska, where I listened to my cab’s FM radio in horror, knowing exactly why Peter Jennings quietly said, “Oh, my God,” as soon as he said it. Satan had apparently decided not to overdo it.
The Loss of Faith
Inevitably, anniversaries such as this will produce analyses in gross lots, rewriting as growing out of the evil stem of the 9/11 attacks trends that were already in place the day before. We need no “truther” conspiracy theories to explain the nadir of our trust in our government; it had been declining for three decades and more. Anti-Moslem sentiment didn’t begin with the collapse of the World Trade Center; it was present during the OPEC oil crisis in the late 1970s, a natural outgrowth of American nativism. We don’t need al-Qaida to explain our interventionism; it was already implicit in complaints that Operation Desert Storm didn’t “finish the job” by going to Baghdad and ousting Saddam Hussein.
Of course we became more afraid. For the sake of security, we permitted the federal government unprecedented powers of investigation and almost casually dispensed with habeas corpus rights for suspected terrorists. In the meantime, we created a new Cabinet-level department whose name carries perhaps-unintended echoes of totalitarian police states. And we also built a cheap, absurd wall along our border with Mexico, as we flailed around to find solutions that would keep terrorists out without going so far as to completely imprison ourselves or stop tourists and imports from coming.
I can’t help but think, though, that in the last fifteen years we became more aware of the fact that America is rotting from within, that both the dream and the reality of America have been corrupted. That’s a broad and vague charge, one not easily specified or documented. However, as much as has been written about the loss of faith in God, I believe that we’ve lost faith in everything — faith in ourselves, in each other, in our social institutions, in our government, in our founding principles.
The fleeting feeling of having been brought closer together by the tragedy of 9/11 merely highlighted the absence of authentic communitas in our quotidian experience. In the fifteen years since, social media has provided a number of poor second-bests in platforms like Twitter and Facebook, coincidentally fostering social division and political tribalism, as well as providing a convenient method for the culture-wide dispersal of lies, hoaxes, and slander. Far from being more united than before 9/11, we are more disunited, more balkanized by tribal loyalties and tribal dogma that, thanks to social media, now cross lines on the map.
Replacing our sense of community is an increasing emphasis on autonomy — an assertion of freedom that recognizes no social obligation or reasonable limit to individual action, an ideal that replaces the “tyranny of the majority” with the tyranny of the autonomous self. Social cohesion has been replaced by a false, sexually amoral “inclusiveness” that has destroyed the biological family, the foundation of civilization, in the names of equality and progress. The Righteous Judge of traditional Judeo-Christian morality has been replaced by the Heavenly Grandfather of moralistic therapeutic deism, a God Who places no moral constraints on us and exists only to confirm us in our unique, special goodness.
We’ve lost our sense of what truth is. Truth is necessary for a robust and reasonable sense of justice. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, it’s impossible for people to live in community unless they can trust one another to tell the truth; truth is something we owe not only ourselves but one another (cf. Summa Theologiae II-II; Q. 109 A. 3 ad 1). Without a robust sense of objective truth, science loses its ground, and our “knowledge” becomes an illusion, a mere manufactured product of our subjective appetites.
A New Crisis of Confidence
The next generation is less prepared for the future than we were. One hundred-plus years of educational “reforms” have left us smarter in a limited number of areas, beset by neo-philistinism in others, and less rational overall. Several decades of increasing concern for children’s safety and self-esteem have resulted in the increasing presence on college campuses of “fragile snowflakes and manipulative narcissists”: young people unable to cope with the risks and challenges of adult life. Meanwhile, the spiraling costs of post-secondary education have put college degrees beyond the reach of many people unless they’re willing to take on crushing debts in student loans. As physicist Dr. Michio Kaku put it, “Without the H1B [visa allowing non-immigrants to work in American jobs], the scientific establishment in this country would collapse.”
As I said before, many of these trends were already in place prior to September 11, 2001. What has happened since is that, like the Twin Towers, our blindness to these trends has slowly crumbled, revealing a fatally compromised culture ready to collapse on itself. 9/11 stripped us of confidence in the future, a confidence that had only a mere twenty years to recover from the chaotic darkness of the Vietnam era and the economic doldrums that had followed in its wake. Since then, we have become increasingly angry, increasingly distrustful, increasingly corrupt, increasingly irrational, and increasingly fearful.
There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
A Call to Repentance
In one sense, 9/11 was America’s Middle East policy chickens coming home to roost. But in another sense, it was a portent in itself, a signal that the American Era is coming to an end, as all things must. Only God is eternal.
Come November 9, there will be citizens voting for the first time who have little to no memory of that obscenely beautiful day. To them, 9/11 is something remote, as was John F. Kennedy’s assassination to those of us born in the 1960s. But for many of the rest of us, graying slowly as we shuffle toward our common mortal destiny, we still stand in the rubble of the World Trade Center, overwhelmed with grief, pity, anger, and fear … fear that God has finally turned His back on the U.S., abandoned us to our pride and our folly.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)
September 11 is officially the Day of Service and Remembrance. But it is not enough for us to remember. We must also repent.