Except for the very young among us, we all remember where we were ten years ago on September 11, 2001. It was a terrible day.
On that day I was Pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church on the West Side of mid-town Manhattan, New York. We were just about 5 miles from the Twin Towers. On that morning, I was speaking to one of the parish employees expressing my dissatisfaction with his performance. He kept trying to tell me that there was something big going on with the Twin Towers, and I thought he was just distracting me from the agenda I had. Eventually, however, he convinced me that something serious was occurring, and I went up to the Paulist common room (our living room) to watch events on TV. It was, as we all experienced, shocking and horrifying.
While we were not directly affected where we were, several miles from the site of the Twin Towers, we could see the smoke. More vividly, we saw people fleeing from lower Manhattan who were covered in ash and smudged with smoke, and terrified. Several stopped at our church, exhausted. They had fled as far as they could, and finally stopped when they got up to our area at 59th Street. We did our best to comfort them and minister to them.
What sticks in my memory though is the smell. For days afterwards, whenever the breeze came from the South, an offensive, acrid, burned stench was in the air. It had a smell of tires and chemicals burning, and it lasted for days. That is what I most remember, and that is something you don’t get from the pictures and videos and news reports. The memory of that smell lingers with me still.
The next day, September 12, we had HUGE crowds at the church. I preached all the Masses. My theme was “do not be afraid.” The terrorists intend to cause us fear and to respond with anger. If we respond with hate, fear, anger, desires for revenge, then the terrorists win. That is what they want. If we react with confidence, hope, self-control, seeking peace while defending our loved ones and our interests, then the terrorists loose. It is really up to us.
The same is true today. As the recent shootings in Tuscon and Norway have amply demonstrated, terror comes in many forms and guises. Ultimately I believe the battle against terror is a spiritual battle; and it takes place in our hearts. We must hear over and over again what Jesus tells us so many times in the Gospels: “Do not be afraid!”