Fifteen years ago yesterday, my friend Karl and I caught a Ryan Air flight from London Stansted to Dublin.
We arrived around noon, and made our way to Cobblestones Pub on the Northside of Dublin in Smithfield, just over the River Liffey. It's my favorite pub in Dublin, not least because it's a hub for traditional Irish music.
We arrived in time for a late lunch with a pint of Guinness. I don't remember what we ate. I remember that the Guinness was fresher, blacker, smoother, more flavorful. It was like we had tapped it from the Source—and we nearly had, as the brewery was only a few steps away. We'd visit it later. It was time to settle into some quality time at Cobblestones.
At 1:46pm, Dublin time, American Airlines Flight 11 barreled into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. There were a couple of televisions in the pub but we weren't paying any attention to them. Soon we noticed that everyone else was. We sipped our stout, and half wondered what had collected the attention. As the only Americans in the pub, it must have seemed strange that we weren't watching TV. At some point before 2pm, someone came over to us with a kind intervention. There had just been a plane crash in New York we should see.
Like everyone else we were horrified. But we at least had a few minutes to imagine it could have been an accident. Yet by 2:03 p. m., or soon after—minutes seemed like hours—we watched as the second plane hit the South Tower. It was immediately obvious: this was not an accident.
I recall being overwhelmed with grief. We were not alone. Minutes before we were strangers, but the Irish pub-goers made us the focus of their own yearning for the Good. We didn't pay for another pint of Guinness. I don't think we paid for our lunch. This was not a day for economic exchange. On this horrific day, there would be charity, maybe not for the whole human family, but right there, in that pub, with a couple dozen people, there would be charity as we witnessed a horrific evil.
We watched the planes crash again and again, as the news programs replayed their impact, in between scenes from below. The demonic smoke billowing from the towers, and then the speculations around how many were inside. Was it 50,000? How many were on the floors above? And then we saw those on the floors above preferring a death of flight to a death of fire. The tears well up, the throat constricts, just to recall it fifteen years on.
We were witnessing evil. But we were also witnessing good, glimpses of those rushing into save as many lives as could be saved. Is there a thousand more, a hundred more, ten more, is there one more we can get out before this tower collapses? We were not only watching a world historical event, but a moral event in which good and evil were both evident in human actions. There were no skeptics that day about the reality of good and evil. At least not in that Dublin pub, and probably not from where you witnessed it either.
There were the stories of those on Flight 93. “Let's roll.” Those haunting last intentions of those about to die—delivered by phone, usually speaking their last words into the 30 second confines of a voice mail. To the one, their messages were about love for those that had been given to them. Love for husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, children, friends.
For once, the media did their job. They reported. They were objective. No one was Republican or Democrat that day. Even the politicians seemed to mean it. And even in Ireland it seemed, we were all Americans, and that solidarity was good. Buried somewhere under all the debris, we saw the common good.
And when the demonic smoke cleared, we saw the image of two steel beams crossed. If you were Christian, and even if you weren't, it seemed like more than a coincidence that this day should end with a Vision of the Cross.
I've said enough for this anniversary. Fifteen years is a long time. Terror, wickedness, the denial of the Good, the advance of evil all continue. Fifteen years on, it seems like the terrorists have won in unexpected ways. The common good is no longer visible to many Americans. But it doesn't mean it isn't there. Perhaps every anniversary of 9/11, the good which comes out of evil is precisely our memory of the common good, of charity, self-sacrifice for a transcendent end. If it is a kind of Preambula Fidei in history, it will be worth remembering it well.
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, pray for us.
C. C. Pecknold is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.