Sunday, 23 October 2011

Stuck in a moment

I can remember exactly where I was on the morning of September 14th, 2001. Yes, I said the fourteenth of September, although I could tell you where I was and what I was doing on the morning of September 11th, 2001 -- if you really wanted me to.

Nevertheless on September 14th, I was walking doggedly up Sussex Drive to see an exhibition at the National Art Gallery while crowds of people surged in the other direction, past the American Embassy, then choked in flowers and notes. Across the street, the headless mannequins displaying Justina McCaffrey's wildly expensive designer wedding dresses (you can just see one in the extreme right edge of the photo) were draped in sheer lavender veils of mourning.

Three days after the incinerations in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania had felt more like three weeks and the orgy of grief was set to continue in "a show of support for our American friends and neighbours" on the lawn in front of the Parliament Buildings.

I'd had enough. Sitting in a pub having breakfast three days before, I had been horrified, sickened and terrified along with everybody else, but part of me was now deeply upset that this level of outrage and hysteria had never been demonstrated when word of atrocities in, say, Bosnia or Rwanda, had reached Canada. Granted, two dozen Canadians had died on 9/11, so it seemed, I suppose, a bit more personal. However, I couldn't help thinking that the reason everyone was so devastated by this was that the victims were mostly white and relatively wealthy, the very people supposed to be exempt from this kind of thing. Not long after the attacks, one of the victim's children gave a heartfelt plea to the Canadian press to consider the sufferings of her widowed mother.

In the financial losses resulting from her bereavement, she'd had to give up her summer house.

In the intervening years, 9/11 has become something like an annual festival, like Christmas or Halloween, complete with television specials, many of them repeats, year after year.

This year being the ten anniversary, I decided to keep away from the television, but one night, about to drift off asleep, I stumbled across a Frontline Documentary on PBS entitled Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero and, being too tired to change the channel, blearily began to watch it.

At first glance, it's like any other 9/11 special, the same shaky-camera shots, the same screams, the same re-tellings. However, the focus of this documentary is on the topic of how faith, or indeed, the lack of it, figured in the engineering of this horror, and what role faith, theist or atheist, plays in trying to make sense of the ensuing suffering and in the very nature of evil.

We start with friends and families of victims of the Twin Towers. We hear from Christians of various stripes, Jews, Muslims. This documentary was made about a year after the attacks. They are still clearly reeling from the shock and the statements of faith are simple:
"God didn't do this."
"God knows best."
A grieving Muslim father who lost his daughter and son-in-law, reports that his prayer at the time was that if they could not be saved, "Let them both go to Allah together."

Others are angrier. A writer (for Martha Stewart magazine, as it turns out) who lost her firefighter husband speaks of coming into a crisis while in vacation in Hawaii of all places, questioning why God would "turn this loving man into bones. . . . I just can't bring myself to speak to (God) anymore; I feel so abandoned."

A security guard who lost scores of friends says: "I'm losing respect for him (meaning God the Father - apparently Jesus is just alright with him). I look at God as a barbarian. That wasn't mercy."

Canadian Brian Clark who survived the Twin Towers and saved another man's life, resulting in a life-long close friendship says: "God intervened in our lives," but adds: "Others didn't have that experience -- I can't question it."

Here we're moving into the sticky area, aren't we? I can't fault these people for speaking honestly in their raw pain and grief, but there's that strange sense of entitlement. God should have spared them because... Why? Because they were good people? Good people are slaughtered every day.

The clergy begin to weigh in. An orthodox Rabbi declares: "If the Plan saved you, you better be ready to say how the Plan didn't save others. If you can, at least you're honest, but we don't worship the same God."

And the discussion continues: a rabbinical scholar, a atheist professor of Middle Eastern studies who says he was confirmed in his atheism by 9/11, a French photographer, a conservative Rabbi who sings the transcripts of phone messages left by the victims to their loved ones as prayers (it's odd, it's uncomfortable, but it's moving); novelist Ian McEwan, opera singer Renée Fleming, a professor of Islamic studies, a Catholic priest. The list goes on, a roster of articulate speakers struggling with the unspeakable.

Highlights for me:

1) A Holocaust survivor puts the whole subject of the existence of evil into perspective. As a child, she lost her entire family during the Nazi atrocities: "I've seen hangings, shootings... (wry, bitter smile) You want to hear more? ....Were they, too, created in the image of God?"

2)Margot Adler, an National Public Radio reporter who is also Unitarian, tells the story of Vladimir Putin being interviewed for NPR, and how Adler was struck by something Putin said that was not, as far as she knew, quoted anywhere. They were asking him about Reagan's remarks about the Evil Empire, and Putin sort of shrugged it off, saying it was an exaggeration. But then they asked him about George Bush's definition of Osama Bin Laden as evil personified: "Putin says, 'No. That is mild language.' And then he says: 'We are as dust to them.'"

Adler goes on to emphasize the impact that remark had on her, with evil, you "lose your sense that a human being is a human being" -- it's an estrangement, the jumpers are not just like you. Here's where I found myself nodding, but then, I'm a lifelong Unitarian-Universalist and that's what I was brought up to believe.

3) The disturbing story of a high-ranking Lutheran clergyman who participated in a service in Yankee Stadium shortly after the attacks, and was stunned to find fellow Lutheran clergyman calling for his resignation and defrocking because he, as a Christian minister, had stood on a podium and prayed with clergyman of other faiths.

The documentary ends on an odd postscript. Jarring, I suppose, because it's based on something that it is assumed everyone will have seen -- and I hadn't. It's various interviewees responding to a photograph of two Twin Towers jumpers, remarkable because they are plummeting to their deaths clasping hands. Ian McEwan is one of the few dissenting voices, saying he finds nothing in this but despair. I googled the photograph, but think it serves little purpose in reproducing it here. I'm not sure if it serves any purpose in providing this link to Brian Doyle's brief essay Leap, but you can go look if you like.

I do recommend Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, which is archived and viewable on line.

In the weeks and months after September 11th, 2001, it felt sometimes as if the whole world had sunk into a blue funk. A song getting airplay was U2's "Stuck in a Moment" which, I think, was actually about the recent death of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, but, for me, captured the mood of that autumn and winter:

Bono, Edge, and Elvis Costello performed this recently on Costello's television show "Spectacle".

1 comment:

Mario A. Niebles said...

Indeed many wars have happened in the past and in my personal opinion, the 9/11 event had nothing to do with wealthy white people dying, because there were also immigrants and low-class people involved.

But there are two things that made get "stuck in the moment":

1) this event was a cynical welcome to the new millenium for the Occidental world. As many hopes as I had kept by January 1rst, 2000 when celebrating with my family and longing for a better future for me, my people & everyone in the planet, this event was a big spoiler of those plans.

2) The fact that it was an act perpetuated by medieval-minded people, made everyone re-evaluate their concept of a post-modern world, as NYC being an icon of it! Since then, I have sensed that humankind's conciousness has been walking back & back to previous decades & centuries with all its load of beliefs-system & human-rights-lack. Not even technology has been safe from this retrograde planetary conciousness!

Thank you,