Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
Today is the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, and there is pain and irony in this. The number 18 in Jewish tradition is, of course, the numeric equivalent of “Chai,” which means life. The World Trade Center and Pentagon murders perpetrated by Al Qaida were the opposite of an affirmation of life, and the responses these horrific acts provoked and catalyzed led to great death and destruction around the world.
Nearly 3,000 people were murdered on this day, and the circles of grief and loss extended far beyond the many victims to their families, friends and communities, even beyond the serious health and psychological problems of first responders and all those within range of the destruction. The emotional trauma extended further still, and severely damaged our nation and our world. 9/11 changed many things, virtually none of them for good. Forces were unleashed that we scarcely understand even now, eighteen years later, and over which we are not really in control.
I chaired the 9/11 commemorations here in Tucson, Arizona for ten years, and coordinated and participated in many events remembering those who died. In every one of those ceremonies we chose to create bonds of respect, honor and love across all boundary lines of religion and race. We did this because it was right. But we also did this because we needed to demonstrate to those who perform these despicable acts in the hopes of destroying human solidarity that they actually create the opposite effect from what they intend. Their acts of violence and evil brought Americans together and engendered respect, understanding and love among people with varying beliefs and of different races and origins.
What I could not help but notice over the 10 years of 9/11 commemorations I chaired, and many I participated in thereafter, was that interest and participation waned over time. In 2001 we needed to gather and share and pray and heal one another. In 2002 we still needed to gather to pray and mourn and remember. But each year thereafter, no matter how moving the ceremonies or how broad a group we gathered—our all-time high was, I believe 24 different religious denominations represented in our Tucson Multi-Faith Alliance service—the numbers of attendees diminished. It’s the way of the world: immediate tragedy becomes memory and quickly moves into history before we even notice.
This year, most of us will see this date as a time to mourn those whose lives were stolen from them. Some will see this date as a time to focus on the war against terrorism and religious insanity, such as the radical, evil form of Saudi Islam that intoxicated the perpetrators of 9/11.
But some of us will choose to see this date as a reminder of what America can be when it chooses to be. At a time of great trauma and crisis what was most extraordinary was the way Americans pulled together. We reached out across all boundary lines of race, creed, color and politics and supported each other. Southerners and Midwesterners cared about New York, Red State and Blue State differences didn’t matter, Republicans and Democrats bonded over shared tragedy and the dedication to healing, strength and pride.
I’d like to suggest that we look back in a different way at the aftermath of 9/11. Not because there was anything to be nostalgic about in 9/11. It was horror and disaster, shock and a national loss of innocence and the sense of security. But there was a quality to the way we Americans responded then that teaches us something essential we may have forgotten recently.
After 9/11, when things seemed blackest, we Americans chose to seek each other’s understanding, respect, support and love, and to offer those to one another freely and with great concern and care. We need not wait until truly horrific tragedy strikes to act this way.
Thank God, and our US intelligence services, that we do not face anything as terrible as 9/11 today. But at a time of ever-increasing national discord and division, of the endless online cultivation of mutual disrespect and hatred, we can take an essential lesson from that terrible time. We can personally and collectively choose instead to build respect, understanding and love in our society. We can reach out across religious lines and celebrate the greatest strength of America: our amazing diversity. We can demonstrate caring and kindness in place of anger and hostility. We can show respect for one another’s faith, race, gender, identity, even politics.
We can choose to do what Americans are supposed to do: we can reject the temptations of easy stereotyping and quick judgment. And then we can do what American are best at, in pinch: we can pull together and seek to make our country, and perhaps our world, truly better, more generous, more respectful, more gracious.
If we choose to do this, on this 18th anniversary of 9/11, we will be choosing to truly affirm life.