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Special Report

Moments of grace during a day of terror


This morning, Tuesday, Sept.11, I picked up the phone in my room in Jersey City, N.J., and it was Bryan Kelly in Japan to tell me he was watching CNN, and the World Trade Center had been hit by two planes.

At my fingertips were photos Bryan, a graduate of Fordham Univeristy in New York, had taken on his visit home in July. They showed the two of us, on the Jersey City waterfront, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center across the Hudson River behind us.

I had never admired the architecture of the Towers and I had never wished them to be there; but they were there, at the bottom of Jersey City’s Montgomery Street. I loved to usher guests across the river and up to the observation deck where they could look down on the Brooklyn Bridge.

From the roof of St. Peter’s Jesuit Community, at the top of the hill, I watched the smoke billow up, and, with my camera, recorded the disappearance of each tower, and asked how I could explain this to my freshman theology class at 11 a.m.

We were working our way through Genesis, where the Lord, who seems reasonable only part of the time, banishes Adam and Eve for wanting to know too much, where Cain has let his jealousy evolve into anger and into murder, where violence spreads, where Cain’s descendant Lamech kills a young man who merely strikes him, where God floods the earth to stop the killing. Then Noah’s descendants at Babel (geographically, today’s Iraq) want to “make a name for themselves,” so they build a tower to the heavens. And God punishes them for overreaching and scatters them throughout the earth with separate languages. And human communication is scrapped.

What more do we need to know?

But all classes are canceled. At the college Mass, St. Peter’s president, Fr. James Loughran, challenges an auditorium packed with students and faculty to make this tragedy a moment of grace to which they must respond with overtures of peace, and he predicts that within the next days they will see an outpouring of generosity and sacrifice as New York and its neighbor, Jersey City, respond to the crisis.

Distributing Communion, saying “the Body of Christ,” as I place the host in each extended hand, I say to myself that this is reason enough to have Catholic colleges and universities, to teach the young how to mourn together in crisis and reach out to a world suffering more than themselves.

Toward the end I start running low on hosts and break them into little pieces, saying “the Body of Christ,” and, to myself, “Yes! The Body of Christ broken. Christ’s body broken in the men and women who jumped from the top floors after the plane hit, broken in the bodies of the airline passengers whose last life image was that of the buildings’ walls looming ahead.”

In my room, the TV and radio chatter all day. I see the plane sail in from the right of the screen and the red fireball burst out from the left and the towers implode in a Hiroshima-like cloud again and again and again and again. Dan Rather tries to tell us in the same breath that President Bush is in charge, that we don’t know where he is, that he’s at an Air Force base in Nebraska.

Phones down, my e-mail screen fills with messages from friends throughout the United States and France asking if I’m OK and praying for America.

From the start, the official talking heads -- I swear that super hawk Lawrence Eagleburger is kept in a freezer at PBS and thawed out to talk tough in emergencies -- are calling this “WAR.” A code word for justifying the most brutal, indiscriminate retaliation.

At the Jersey City Exchange Place waterfront this afternoon, tugboats and police boats ferry victims across the river to be transferred from one of five landing spots to local hospitals. Around 4:30, D. Martin, Jersey City Emergency Medical Service supervisor, tells me 1,500 people had been processed. I see a half-dozen fire fighters, their uniforms encrusted in white dust, seated as nurses wash their eyes, or wheeled by on gurneys, heads or eyes in bandages. Perhaps 200, we are told later, of their comrades lie beneath the rubble.

Kelli Ann Greenwood, a former student of mine at Loyola University whom I have not seen in 10 years, looked up from the Jersey City Grove Street PATH (New York-New Jersey subway) station at 9:05 and saw the second plane loop around and crash into the second tower. A lawyer, in July she had interviewed with a firm on the World Trade Center 81st floor and was devastated when she did not get the job. Her mother had consoled her: “Everything happens for a reason.”

A young man on a bike curses the @#%*! who did this and offers to volunteer for a retaliation raid. “Would you volunteer to blow yourself up?” I ask.

“No, I’d volunteer to push the button.”

He reflects on what he has said and apologizes for his anger. “My wife was over there,” he says. “She’s OK, but she could have been hurt.”

Two writers in Wednesday’s New York Times compare New York and Washington’s suffering to that of the Israelis -- to justify Israel’s assassination policies and identify America’s plight with Israel’s. But if this terrible day proves anything it is that no national policy based on retaliation and revenge works. Indeed, the Palestinian-Israeli mutually destructive cycle of escalating violence -- as Genesis warns -- has reached its logical culmination.

President Bush says we will not distinguish between the terrorists and countries that harbor them. Ex-Sen. David Boren told the “Lehrer News Hour” that we must “hit the infrastructure” of those countries. We tried that in Iraq and since that war we have been held responsible for the deaths of millions of children from disease and malnutrition.

Why are we surprised that hundreds of Arab children dance in the streets as our towers fall? For every mad Muslim we or the Israelis “take out” -- killing his neighbors on the side -- two more ignorant, fanatical youths stand ready to step forward, strap on the dynamite and hijack a plane.

Only Mario Cuomo, interviewed on TV Tuesday morning, said: “We must discover and solve the grievance that drives men to do these terrible acts.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit Community Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College. His new book, Dante to Dead Man Walking: One Person’s Journey Through the Christian Classics, has just been published by Loyola Press.

National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2001