Remembering September 11 Ten Years Later

September 6, 2011

As the United States heads into a week of remembering the events of 9-11, we asked PSR faculty and alumni/ae to offer some reflections on the ten years afterward.

Reflections provided by:

  • Devin Zuber, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Literature and Swedenborgian Studies
  • Riess Potterveld, President
  • Andrea Bieler, Professor of Christian Worship
  • Joseph D. Driskill, Professor of Spirituality
  • Horace Griffin, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology
  • Robin Hess, MDiv, Class of ‘58

Reflections on 9/11
by Devin Zuber, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Literature and Swedenborgian Studies

What do we mean when we say we should collectively remember something? Does it mean reassembling the pieces of an event that has been dis-membered, taken apart? I watched the World Trade Center burn from my New York City rooftop on a bright, crystalline-blue Indian summer day. The instant hush that blanketed our neighborhood in Astoria—the complete cessation of all traffic—only increased the sense of unreality at the distant bright flames, and then rush of smoke and debris that silently billowed towards us as the towers collapsed. We lost a family friend that morning, and grieved with many others in the weeks that ensued—traveling to churches for funerals in Manhattan, through streets that were still acidic with smoke weeks and weeks after the event: funerals that were sometimes doubly haunted by the absent body of an absent person, no human remains having been found.

Ten years later, it is hard, if not impossible, to recollect these pieces back together without looking at them through the lens of so much that has come in-between, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the ongoing presence of detainee camps like Guantanamo Bay. I resist the resumption of calls that to remember 9/11 ten years later is to “never forget” how exceptional and unique the tragedy was, as “the day the world changed forever,” as it is so often put. My family friend who died in the towers was no more an exceptional sacrifice for freedom than are any of 111,864 civilians that have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion of 2003.[1]  The needless destruction of innocent lives, be it in New York or a Baghdad suburb, constitutes an ethical horror unto its own, one that no country or group or religion can claim an exclusive monopoly on.

As violence and violation continue dilating outwards from 9/11—as Guantanamo and other detainee detention sites in operation by the U.S. continue their (often open) violations of basic human rights—it also seems premature to proclaim that the U.S. is now ready to “move on” from 9/11, that the event will no longer signally define the upcoming decade as it has so doggedly shadowed the last ten years. This seems optimistic amnesia; or worse, a willed blindness to our collective implication in cycles of great injustice. To remember my own experience on that day, to stitch back together the visual wound in the sky, the shock and raw grief, is to return to a different moment of possibility—to locate a potential for empathy, that my pain and suffering could open towards the understanding of others elsewhere. This is what I want to carry with me, ten years later; to “tarry with my grief,” as Judith Butler has so nicely put it, to remain “exposed to [grief’s] unbearability and not endeavor to seek a resolution for grief through violence.” Butler goes on to ask how “if we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?” [2]  This difficult question remains trenchant to keep in mind, all the more so now, with the new “Freedom Tower” being built at the World Trade Center, and its attendant stone memorial, that appear to all but nail down a particular fixity and meaning to the events of that day.

 [1]  http://www.iraqbodycount.org/
 [2] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London; New York: Verso, 2004), 30.

Sanctimony, Memorials, and Sanctification: the Sacred and Profane in Re-membering Ground Zero
by Devin Zuber, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Literature and Swedenborgian Studies

The announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1st of this year brought renewed media attention to the site of the former World Trade Center and the streets of lower Manhattan. Newspapers and the nightly news documented the spontaneous gathering of crowds that converged on various public spaces like Washington Square, Times Square, and at Ground Zero itself. Read more...

Flânerie at Ground Zero: Aesthetic Countermemories in Lower Manhattan
by Devin Zuber, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Literature and Swedenborgian Studies

The ruins of the former World Trade Center have been one of the most contested sites of public memory in recent history, a staging ground for both war campaigns and protest suicides. Like many New Yorkers who experienced 9/11, I found it challenging to piece together my own experience of that day as the ruins were quickly transformed into a political arena. Read more...

Remembering the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11
by Riess Potterveld, President

Ten years ago, a group of students and I, as Dean, had been assigned the preparation of the Chapel worship service and sermon for September 11, 2001. We had requested a cello soloist for the service and he called on Saturday to ask what to play. The only advice I passed on was “play something in a minor key.” That morning, the music communicated more powerfully than our frail words.

After witnessing the news flash and images of the first plane smashing into one of the twin towers in NYC, the worship committee met to make a decision regarding the appropriateness of what had been prepared prior to the traumatic event.

Over the intervening years, I have met people on the East coast who lost intimate family members in the debacle (a son, a spouse, a brother). How they talked about this loss is etched into my mind.

Etched into my mind as well are actions of my country like the use of drones to assassinate those who have been defined as terrorists, often accompanied by the death of nearby civilians (termed “collateral damage.”)

The history of our own aggressive invasions of other countries with incredibly powerful weapons makes any assessment of 9/11 more complicated, more ambiguous. I find it increasing difficult to assess 9/11 in simple sentences. There are too many complicating factors to take account of while mourning the fact that any country and its citizenry should be exposed to such harsh and destructive realities.


Reiss Potterveld Sermon, September 11, 2001 on Vimeo.

Precarious Memory
by Andrea Bieler, Professor of Christian Worship

Remembering in the aftermath of violence is at the heart of the Christian faith as we remember Jesus, a tortured and killed victim of state terror at his time. This memory can be haunting; it can lead in distorted ways into the world of trauma which is enmeshed in the compulsion to return to an inaccessible wound by engaging in mimetic acts of revenge. However, it can also become a disturbingly transformative memory as we delve into the story of Christ’s resurrection from the dead: A story that hints at the shocking hope in the disruption of violence.

What does it mean to remember faithfully the events of September 11 and their aftermath? For sure, this kind of remembering disrupts the traumatic compulsion to lash out in warfare. It lifts up the singularity and preciousness of each life -- human and non-human -- that has been lost. It breaks open the binary of “we and them”. It evokes a kind mourning which has a visceral quality as it speaks of vulnerability and precariousness. It treasures the fragmented episodes, such as this one:

Sometimes, awaiting sleep, or on walks along the Battery, pieces of the day come back. They are never in any order, since memory is a highlight film. But there again are the people, tiny in the high distance, leaping into the empty air beside the smoking North Tower. There on Versey Street, on the corner of Church, is an immense tire from one of the planes that smashed into the North Tower, and beside the curb in front of a luncheonette, a pair of women’s shoes and a spilled container of coffee. I can hear the screaming sounds of emergency: sirens, bells, blurry bullhorns. I hear the young policeman telling me: “They just hit the fucking Pentagon!” I see the burning South Tower leaning to the east, as if trying to cross Church Street, then right itself, to come straight down in a blinding, thumping eruption of smoke and dust, accompanied by a high-pitched eerie choral sound that must have come from humans falling to their death. And in the opaque whiteness, I am trying to find my wife, Fukiko. Right behind me. Except she isn’t.

(Peter Hamill, “The Changed World,” in The New Republic. A Journal of Politics and the Arts, September 15, 2011: 5)

Remembering September 11, 2001
by Joseph D. Driskill, Professor of Spirituality

Anyone over the age of 17 can probably tell you where they were when planes began flying into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. My morning alarm clock sounded just minutes after the first hit was being reported. People of many nationalities, races, and cultural backgrounds who worked or were visiting in New York or Washington, D.C. were the unfortunate victims of hatred toward the economic and governmental symbols of U.S. power. Also, as the horrors unfolded, sympathetic voices from people of many nationalities, races and cultural backgrounds poured into homes and offices around the nation. Words of sorrow; prayers of hope were being offered up around the globe. Hundreds of responders became heroes that day, some by simply doing their jobs, and others by going the “extra mile” at the expense of their lives. As the world watched humankind’s inhumanity was standing shoulder to shoulder with the very best we can be.

I remember the hope many of us held as we waited for the official response our country would make. Would we simply return violence for violence or would we examine some of the root causes, the injustices and inequities, which lead hopeless people to strike out by martyring themselves. Would we seek justice or revenge? Would we be driven by compassion or fear? Informed voices in the State Department urged careful moderation while others in the Administration sought “shock and awe.”

As members of a Christian faith community we have a Gospel which is quite explicit about the way one treats one’s enemies. Now an opportunity confronted us. Could one of the world’s “great” empires find a creative and compassionate way to respond? We waited with some hope. When the response came, our hopes were dashed. Not only was “shock and awe” the path, but Iraq was attacked not because they had attacked us, but because they had “weapons of mass destruction”—a claim, which everyone now acknowledges, was untrue. Further, we violated our own commitment to the Geneva Conventions by engaging in the torture of prisoners. Can you imagine how Americans would react if the U.S. was preemptively invaded by a power it had not attacked, and if collateral damage (the killing innocent citizens) had continued over ten years?

Humankind’s inhumanity takes many forms. Whether it is the revenge of State sanctioned torture or the hated of agents of terror it seeks to kill not merely the body, but also the spirit. Yet, in the midst of ashes there are always people whose acts of heroism inspire us to be our better selves; to rise above our fears and our desires for revenge, and to actively work for the flourishing of the human community. As we remember those whose lives have been lost because of the terror of 9/11, let us recommit ourselves to build communities where mutual understanding not only grows from, but also contributes to, justice and peace.

Both Sides Now (Reflections on September 11, 2001)
by Horace Griffin, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology

When I reflect on that day—September 11, 2001—several things flash through my mind: falling on my knees in front of the television, seeing burning buildings, blue New York sky, heads turned upward. In my Chicago apartment, I became spellbound, watching in disbelief this world-changing tragedy unfold, images seared forever in my mind. I had the feeling one gets after receiving middle-of-the-night bad news--helpless, sad, shocked, frozen. I thought about my flight to St. Louis the week before when I had no thoughts of hijackers, terrorists, burning buildings, screams, jumping, buildings collapsing and death. I thought about the ease in which I walked through security with a six-inch metal candle holder, a gift for a Missouri friend dying of cancer. But I flew before this awful day, before we thought religious men could turn box cutters into swords and planes into bombs.

In the 1960’s, the Seattle-born legendary folk artist Judy Collins recorded the unforgettable hit, “Both Sides Now,” about seeing things in the world as having more than one dimension. The last few days, I have heard Collins’ crystal-clear soprano voice reminding me that the above images are not the only ones that come to my mind about September 11. Through pastoral theologian eyes, I looked for the care that humans gave to each other on that day as evil paraded around good. Like so many others who struggled to find God on that day, I eventually found God embodied in the compassionate souls who cared for ailing and wept with the dying. So mixed in my memory of burning buildings and people falling to their deaths, I have flashes of firefighters running up tower stairs to save lives while their chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, walked with them to their death. I remember prayers and tears and holding hands with those who cried out for help on planes, in buildings, in ashes and on the streets of New York and Washington DC. I can still see women comforting men, Muslims and Jews helping Christians and young holding old. When I think of this day, I am reminded that we all witnessed the worst and best in human beings. I pray that we will always remember the images of destruction and death that compel us to work for religious reconciliation, peace and justice. I also pray that we never forget God’s presence in the women and men who offered heroic acts of care on September 11. In doing this, in seeing both sides now, we will never underestimate the ability of the human spirit to extinguish evil with good.

Reflections on 9/11
by Devin Zuber, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Literature and Swedenborgian Studies

What do we mean when we say we should collectively remember something? Does it mean reassembling the pieces of an event that has been dis-membered, taken apart? I watched the World Trade Center burn from my New York City rooftop on a bright, crystalline-blue Indian summer day. The instant hush that blanketed our neighborhood in Astoria—the complete cessation of all traffic—only increased the sense of unreality at the distant bright flames, and then rush of smoke and debris that silently billowed towards us as the towers collapsed. We lost a family friend that morning, and grieved with many others in the weeks that ensued—traveling to churches for funerals in Manhattan, through streets that were still acidic with smoke weeks and weeks after the event: funerals that were sometimes doubly haunted by the absent body of an absent person, no human remains having been found.

Ten years later, it is hard, if not impossible, to recollect these pieces back together without looking at them through the lens of so much that has come in-between, from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the ongoing presence of detainee camps like Guantanamo Bay. I resist the resumption of calls that to remember 9/11 ten years later is to “never forget” how exceptional and unique the tragedy was, as “the day the world changed forever,” as it is so often put. My family friend who died in the towers was no more an exceptional sacrifice for freedom than are any of 111,864 civilians that have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion of 2003 (1).  The needless destruction of innocent lives, be it in New York or a Baghdad suburb, constitutes an ethical horror unto its own, one that no country or group or religion can claim an exclusive monopoly on.

As violence and violation continue dilating outwards from 9/11—as Guantanamo and other detainee detention sites in operation by the U.S. continue their (often open) violations of basic human rights—it also seems premature to proclaim that the U.S. is now ready to “move on” from 9/11, that the event will no longer signally define the upcoming decade as it has so doggedly shadowed the last ten years. This seems optimistic amnesia; or worse, a willed blindness to our collective implication in cycles of great injustice. To remember my own experience on that day, to stitch back together the visual wound in the sky, the shock and raw grief, is to return to a different moment of possibility—to locate a potential for empathy, that my pain and suffering could open towards the understanding of others elsewhere. This is what I want to carry with me, ten years later; to “tarry with my grief,” as Judith Butler has so nicely put it, to remain “exposed to [grief’s] unbearability and not endeavor to seek a resolution for grief through violence.” Butler goes on to ask how “if we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?” (2)  This difficult question remains trenchant to keep in mind, all the more so now, with the new “Freedom Tower” being built at the World Trade Center, and its attendant stone memorial, that appear to all but nail down a particular fixity and meaning to the events of that day.

1 http://www.iraqbodycount.org/
2 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London ; New York: Verso, 2004), 30.

Alumni/ae Thoughts

by Robin Hess, MDiv 1958

What a calamity! Bad enough that the U. S. was attacked on its own soil with the Twin Towers coming down and thousands of people losing their lives. That was one of the most tragic days for our nation.

However, even more tragic was our response. Two undeclared wars with 920,000 people on all sides dead -- 130 times all the people killed by terrorists since 2000 (including the Twin Towers). And of course our attacks on those nations and all the killing that has gone on has only dramatically increased the number of people wanting to be what we call terrorists. How we have insulted the memory of 9/11.

The needed response, instead of spending 1.25 trillion dollars for these wars, would have been to spend less than 1/10 of 1% of that money to help all the underprivileged people in the world to overcome poverty, disease, malnutrition, lack of education and a host of other problems, including those in our own country. This would have exactly reversed feeling toward our country, so that instead of losing respect the world over, we would have gained it.

It is not too late. We can stop the drain into wars and use that money to help, not only the world, but our own economy. Let’s get busy and do the right thing.

Pastoral Prayer
by Kent Gilbert, MDiv 1991, Pastor, Union Church, Berea, Kentucky

Lord, in the midst of our grief and the memory of our loss, we gather in your presence and remember: We have feared the terror of the night; We have seen the sacrifices of the brave; We have cried the tears of the lost, and we have clenched our fists and raged against the pain and damage. We have wept and mourned, lashed out and retaliated, we have healed and hoped. Now we gather in your presence to be whole and to walk humbly with our God as the years unfold. 

For the families of the many victims we pray that by your mercy life may rise even from ashes. We pray especially for those whose lives are still broken by the tragedies of that day, and ask that by your grace and mercy tattered hearts may know your touch, healing their shattered spirits, reknitting for them a world of hope, and granting them rest from the fury and frustration unjustly imposed upon them.

In the many heroes who sacrificed themselves for others we see the face of Christ. Strengthen those who hold their memory sacred in their needs as you have strengthened all who lay down their lives for their friends. 

We pray also for our enemies, Lord. And what we pray for our enemies you have also taught us to pray for ourselves: that they, we, and all of your creation may be free from the powers that turn blessing into burning; free us and them from all that warps our minds and turns to hate the love you intend for all.

Holy one, you are our God in trial and rejoicing. As we remember past tragedy, we seek your wisdom that we may proffer future blessings in your name. Now and in the years to come, help us to place our trust solely in your word and way, and not in imperfect paths of our own design. Our hope is not in the towers we build, or in the roar of war, or in the fervor with which we proclaim our outrage or our piety. Our salvation is in the way of your Christ, in your mercy, and in our kinship with you. Though we mourn and are poor in spirit, may we yet find your kingdom and be blessed.

Thus bless those who gather and remember this day. Bless those who seek the healing after the hurt, and grant us the wisdom we need in this year and all that follow: that we may reap what is of life even in the midst of death. In every circumstance, Lord, bless your people and your world that we may rest and rise, live and die and be reborn in the compassion of Christ. In so doing, may we live always as sisters and brothers at peace healing a broken world.  Amen.