September 11. This is written the day after, just under the deadline for this issue. For years to come, I expect, we will speak of “before” and “after” September 11. I was on my way to say the nine o’clock Mass at Immaculate Conception, on 14th Street and First Avenue, when the hijacked airline hit the first tower. There was a small crowd at the corner of 14th and I remarked that there seemed to be a fire at the World Trade Center and we should pray for the people there. But I could not stay or I would be late for Mass. Only after Mass did I discover what had happened. How strange beyond understanding, I thought, that as we were at the altar offering up, as Catholics believe, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, only a little to the south of us was rising, in flames and mountains of smoke, a holocaust of suffering and death. That, too, was subsumed and offered on Calvary. It occurred to me that Friday, only three days away, is the feast called The Triumph of the Cross. Exactly.
The first commentary I heard was from a woman coming out of the church: “That’s what we get for unconditionally supporting Israel.” I wondered how many others would draw that lesson. Watching television during the day, the question was several times asked, “Why do they hate us so much?” And the answer given in one word was “Israel.” The further question implied was, Is our support for Israel worth this? What justice requires us to do in order to punish the perpetrators and ward off even greater evil is done for Israel, of course, but it is done, much more comprehensively, for the civilization that Christians, Jews, and everyone else will now come to see more clearly as it is seen by others: the Christian West.
My part of Manhattan is a long string of hospitals, and I went to be of whatever help I could. After a couple of hours it became obvious that very few of the injured were coming into the hospitals. The doleful conclusion is that, except for the many who were able to get out and away, the people at ground zero are dead. Many thousands they are saying today; no doubt we will find out how many in the days ahead. It will be a city of funerals for weeks to come, as bodies and pieces of bodies are identified. The church, the residence, and our offices are all north of 14th Street. At the house and office, everyone is safe. I am sure the same is not true of all our parishioners. It is weird. We can look down the avenues and see the still billowing smoke, as though watching a foreign country under attack, but of course it is our city, and our country.
Before and after September 11, what difference will it make? That’s the subject of endless chatter and nobody knows. For what it’s worth, I anticipate five major changes. It will inaugurate a time of national unity and sobriety in a society that has been obsessed by fake pluralisms while on a long and hedonistic holiday from history. Second, there will be an understandable passion for retaliation and revenge that could easily veer into reckless bellicosity. That is a danger. The other danger is that fear of that danger will compromise the imperative to protect and punish. Third, a legitimate concern for increased security will spark a legitimate concern for personal freedoms. Many will warn that freedom cannot be protected by denying freedom, and such warnings should not be lightly dismissed, even as we know that the liberty we cherish is not unbridled license but ordered liberty. Without order there can be no liberty; it is for liberty that we surrender license. I expect that many Americans who never understood that will now be having long second thoughts.
Fourth, after some initial sortings out, America will identify itself even more closely with Israel. Disagreements over the justice of how Israel was founded and how it has maintained itself in existence will not disappear. But the diabolical face of the evil that threatens Israel, and us, is now unveiled. Among Americans and all who are part of our civilization, it will be understood that we must never surrender, or appear to be surrendering, to that evil. Finally, the question of “the West and the rest” will be powerfully sharpened, including a greatly heightened awareness of the global threats posed by militant Islam. Innocent Muslims in this country and Europe are undoubtedly in for some nastiness, and we must do our best to communicate the distinction between Islam and Islamism, knowing that the latter is the monistic fanaticism embraced by only a minority of Muslims. But almost inevitably, given the passions aroused and the difficulties of enforcing the law among people who are largely alien in their ways, such distinctions will sometimes get lost. We can only try to do our best by those Muslims who have truly chosen our side in “the clash of civilizations.” It seems likely also that, after September 11, discussion about immigration policy will become more intense, and more candid.
That’s a mixed bag of possible consequences, and, of course, I may be wrong about any or all of them. These are but first thoughts one day after. Only a little south of here thousands are buried under the rubble. So it is now to the tasks at hand. It will be the work of weeks, perhaps months, to give them a proper burial. The consolation of the living is a work without end.
This article originally appeared in Fr. Neuhaus’ Public Square of the November 2001 print edition.