"By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept..."
Today the nation will be focused on the tragic events that happened exactly one year ago today. As one who was an eyewitness to some of those events, I would first remember an occurrence of roughly one year before
that terrible day...
I was driving home from a dance in Baltimore one Saturday night. I was headed westbound on the expressway across downtown Washington, approaching the 14th Street Bridge, over the Potomac and into Virginia. At the underpass before the bridge, I noticed the cars ahead of me weaving from one lane to another. Coming around the bend onto the bridge itself, I saw a lone vehicle stalled in the middle lane. Cars were weaving by, beeping their horns. A lone woman was standing outside the vehicle. I pulled my own car to a place several lengths in front of her, and stopped. With traffic speeding all around me, I got out, and went to see if she was all right. She was visibly shaken by her predicament. I got her to relax, and assisted her into the car. I got into the driver's seat, and attempted to start the engine. It must have flooded temporarily on an earlier attempt, because it started fine for me.
In a show of gratitude, she tried to give me money, but I wouldn't take it. I heard her ask me: "Do you get by?" I assured her that I did. I also instructed her to follow me to the nearest exit, as she was still quite unsettled by the experience.
The lights of the Pentagon could be seen to the right of us, as we took the ramp to Washington Boulevard. We pulled over, and I got out of my car. When I approached her window, she tried to give me a sandwich bag filled with what appeared to be... well, a tobacco substitute. "Didn't you tell me you get high?" she asked. I assured her of what I actually did
say, adding, "Ma'am, I only get high on life and zydeco dancing." She was obviously feeling better about the whole thing, so we said our goodbyes and parted. I never saw her after that.
I told my son about the incident. He told his mother. I was to learn some time afterward, of how my story was the subject of some amusement at a cousin's wedding. It seems I freaked out because I was offered a bag of marijuana by a stranger.
I suppose it was a sign of my own lack of faith, as I began to question the value of such kindness. Perhaps virtue was a lost cause. Nearly a decade earlier, we elected a President who was a known and admitted philanderer. We watched him lie to our faces about his conduct. We applauded him just the same. And why not? The economy was going well, the trains were running on time, there was plenty of bread and circuses to entertain us. The complacency that affected Rome in days of antiquity, as well as Germany and Italy in the 1930s -- how different were they from what we were, right up until that fateful day...
It was about one year later, on September 11, 2001. I was at work at my office in Washington, located just two blocks west of the White House. While on the phone with an associate in New Jersey that morning, she suddenly gasped in disbelief. Go to your television, she said. It was already tuned to CNN. That was when I learned what happened to the World Trade Center in New York City.
From the top floor of my building, we could look out on the balcony and see the people evacuating from the White House and related buildings. Just then, I saw people at the south side of our building, looking out over the Potomac. There was smoke coming from the Pentagon, where most offices of the Defense Department are located. A jetliner had just crashed into that as well.
Events were unfolding quickly. There were rumors of car bombs, and of panic in the streets (although most of what I saw was mere pandemonium and gridlock). Our press office was awaiting a decision from a government-wide level. That didn't stop the nearby State Department from evacuating. Then a colleague came down the front office. It's official, he said, everybody go home. Before our press office could even find anyone to get a decision worth announcing, the building was being evacuated.
My apartment is just three miles from my office, across the Potomac into Arlington, Virginia. It would be an hour's walk. I could have taken the subway, but with the expected crowds, and some prior experience with just how Metro might respond in an emergency, I figured walking would get me home much sooner.
Hundreds of others had the same idea, even if only to catch the subway in Virginia. In the distance, and on television monitors and car radios, it was as a scene from a disaster movie. A plane crashing into a skyscraper. That same building collapsing. Smoke and flames bellowing from the nerve center of our nation's defense.
I made it to the Virginia side easily enough, certainly easier than most of the cars. I passed a high-rise apartment complex. A frantic woman was throwing furniture and belongings from seven or eight stories up. She was out of control. Someone said she was carrying a sign. I didn't see one. I did see a free-lance videographer trying to get footage, while shouting questions to her about her motives. Anything for a Pulitzer, I thought.
I finally got home, and called my mother in Ohio. My siblings, all of whom lived within a few miles of my parents, were checking in with her, to see if they had heard from me. I told them I was home safely; indeed, that I was never in any real danger. Meanwhile, my fifteen-year-old son called my house and left a message. I called the school to relay the same message to him. I learned later that his aunt, one of my former sisters-in-law, was stationed in the affected portion of the Pentagon. A doctor's appointment that day saved her life. My son had learned of this, and had taken it upon himself to alert other family members, including a frail maternal grandmother in Cleveland, that all was well, at least among their own...
I was once told of the words of a psalm, the one an outfit of the British Army would carry with them before going into war. I was told they never lost a man:
"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
who abides in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD, 'My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust...'"
-- Psalm 90(91):1
I listened to the pundits on television, one after another. They were all quite sure of ourselves, and what must be done. They went on for weeks about it, as if to say: "We interrupt our normal programming for this special report..." and then never stopping. One of them, a former Secretary of State, reminded us that this will not be over in a couple of weeks; the American people should be prepared for a long haul.
The Proverbs tell us: "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to the people."
How righteous is this nation, this land that I love? Do we as a people see anything worth fighting for, worth dying for? Do I witness Rome before the fall, or Israel after she repents?
The answer may be found in the acts of bravery, accounts of which have been shared with us. Some can only be imagined, as in a fiery crash in a Pennsylvania countryside. Then there are the rescue workers who marched into hell in Manhattan. Many have yet to be adequately compensated for their efforts, even those who will be scarred for life.
On a grassy knoll not far from the Pentagon, there stands the memorial dedicated to the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima. At its base is an inscription that was echoed in the carnage nearby:
"Uncommon valor was a common virtue."
Inasmuch as this would apply to the events of September 11, then the truest sign of a hero is one whose virtue stands on its own, even if known only to God.
Such was the lesson of two years ago. Such was the lesson our nation learned one year later. Such is my only message for today.