Hendrik Hertzberg , Serene Jones and Pankaj Mishra —
Remembering Forward Ten Years after 9/11

In the days and months after 9/11, St. Paul's Chapel became the hub where thousands of volunteers and rescue workers received round-the-clock care. It was a moving setting to explore how 9/11 changed us as a people — and to ponder the inward work of living with enduring grief and unfolding understanding. From a live conversation at the edge of Ground Zero, The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones.

Share Episode

Shortened URL

Guests

is a senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker.

is the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York.

is an author and essayist who regularly writes for The New York Times, The Guardian, and the New Statesman.

Video Interviews with Krista Tippett

In the Room with Hendrik Hertzberg, Serene Jones, and Pankaj Mishra

From St. Paul's Chapel at the edge of Ground Zero on September 6, 2011, watch Krista's complete discussion about who we want to become a decade after 9/11.

About the Image

Behind historic St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway Avenue at the foot of Wall Street looms the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1973.

Episode Sponsor

Funding provided in part by the Nour Foundation.

Share a Reflection

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span><div><img><!-->
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Embed content by wrapping a supported URL in [embed] … [/embed].

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Reflections

I believe we are seeing the unfortunate side of our "understanding" of the September 11 attacks in that the loudest voices are on the far ends of the spectrum. Tea Party members on the far right and liberals on the far left are fighting a battle that makes no sense to much of the population. Yet, as we see with the economy, those few loudest voices seem to have a very large impact.

I believe that we can still learn from well before September 11, 2001, back to our revolutionary forefathers. They obviously did not always see eye to eye, yet they found a way to compromise their way to a Declaration of Independence and Constitution. What would happen today if the folks running our government had to make the decisions that they did? Likely nothing until it was too late.

What we need to focus on, and what we need to pass on to our future generations, is finding a middle path of compromise. We should tone down the vitriolic rhetoric of the far left and right and begin to bring the dialogue to a more compassionate, more controlled, more thoughtful tone. We need to hold all arms of the government accountable and reign them in when they get out of control (i.e. too far off the path that the majority of Americans are on). We need to focus on the most important things that affect the most people and not things that make little sense to the majority, yet take up too much of the government's time.

We need to give our future generations the chance that we have had. We need to look forward with love and compassion and realize that we are on the edge of a deep crevasse that will crumble if we focus on the wrong things. We need to return to compassion, empathy, and love for all humans, not just those who are like us. We need to pass that compassion, that empathy, that love on to our next generation.

How do we help children understand something they do not remember? Most children were not yet born on September 11, 2001, but during the next several weeks they will be reminded of 9/11.

I asked a few of my clergy friends to join me in writing prayers of peaceful remembrance for children. We may not be able to answer all of their questions, but we can share God's gift of prayer. These prayers express hope, love, fear, confusion and the power of God's grace.

9/11 has been the biggest thing to hit my generation. I was born in 1992. We were little kids, in third grade. We sat in the classroom and our teacher turned the TV on just as coolly as she'd tell us, "Turn to page x in your textbooks." We saw the second tower get hit. We heard planes scrambling around the nuclear power plant we later learned that could've easily been a target.

I went home and saw it replayed over and over. I was watching in shock, and never really understood how much it affected me until I called a friend from my old school. She was Muslim, and I had no religious beliefs. I asked if she'd been involved, if her family had. A second-grader's scared voice cried back to me, "No, but you're my only white friend who's still talking to me." I want my nephew's generation to know: Love your neighbors, as yourself. Talk things out before you hurt people. I want them to know the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. From "Letter from Birmingham Jail":

"Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty."

What are we just understanding now about the story of 9/11? I think it's that we are all just stumbling our way through this life without certitude. The "moral clarity" we were supposed to have gleaned that day has given way to a moral fog.

It's true that was one of the worst atrocities ever committed, but when a people reacts heroically at first, but then as despicably as we have (launching wars, raining death and destruction down on people who had no hand in the attack, etc.), it has taught me that the righteousness of the American experiment is not a given and that we must constantly reexamine and re-earn that righteousness.

What wisdom do we want to focus on? I don't know. We all hoped that the event would cement our bonds not just as Americans but as people of the world, but we seem only to grow further apart from one another. Reasons for this go beyond 9/11, and obviously those forces are stronger than the bonding and community that we felt after 9/11.

I suppose politicians will make speeches about coming together and taking care of our neighbors, but they will soon go back, as Rick Perry recently did, to asserting that their opponents don't love their country, thus giving lie to those solemn 9/11 speeches. So the "wisdom" we should focus on is the wisdom ignored, but isn't that always the way? The lessons were obvious after the attacks, but we've chosen not to let them sink in and become tenets of our collective soul.

I understand there's always a gulf between our ideals and our actions. Life is messy, but the lofty rhetoric we're going to hear in the next few weeks about community and neighborliness will give way to narrow parochial concerns, and that's a shame. And I hate to sound like I'm writing a long indictment of our society and political leadership. Ultimately I'm not that discouraged, but that's not because of our collective reaction to 9/11, rather it's despite it.

The terrorists are winning their war against us the same way the U.S. won the cold war against the U.S.S.R. Scare the other guys into foolishness so that they self-destruct.

The wisdom it would be wise to focus on is to not even be afraid of fear.

9/11 was a turning point for me — the moment I realized that the gift of life that has been afforded me was being wasted in pursuit of a horribly hollow American dream. I left corporate America and set out on a path to reclaim my artistic gifts and to reclaim my sense of love for life and humanity. What has become clear to me is the profound, simple importance of bringing our most basic convictions to life.

The most basic conviction that I am able to find in historical as well as current spiritual/religious annals is the idea of one, or unity. The religious, spiritual, and scientific mythologies all begin with the idea of one thing. It may be called God, Allah, Yeshuah, Big Bang, Universe, or one of hundreds of other names. And these stories always end with a return to this one thing. In science, the universe contracts back to whatever that thing was that went bang; in religion, we are reunited with the divine one. There are countless variations but the story is basically one thing to many back to one thing.

We even have widespread precedent for the idea that this one thing is the underlying unity that holds the fabric of life together. "We are all one" is perhaps the most popular expression of this idea that not only is one thing the beginning and end, it is also the means. And so perhaps we are not "the many" at all. Perhaps we are still the one, diversified.

But you ask about "we" — honestly, I am never certain what "we" as a society understand about much of anything. It seems to me on the individual level that many of us have learned that now is our opportunity to get along by actually living our most basic spiritual/societal convictions. America's most basic conviction — the one that initially distinguished us from the world as it also united us as a country — was the clear statement by Mr. Thomas Jefferson that "All men are created equal." What I think we have yet to come to understand is that this conviction has been twisted from a statement of present equality into the proclaimed pursuit of future equality. Equality has become the goal, not the basis — the end, not the beginning. And most certainly not the means.

"United we stand, Divided we fall." My co-writer Alice and I wonder if our president actually sees unity, here now. He seems to be advancing a unifying vision, but we wonder if he actually sees unity like most folks see duality/multiplicity. We certainly hope he does, for our leaders have seen their fellow beings divided far too long. Our leaders have long been understood to proclaim life a struggle of the many to attain unity, and have done a fine job of insisting upon and perpetuating the illusion for us. It is a fine time for a leader that actually sees unity as he or she moves about the world. Every faith, including scientific, proclaims underlying unity and suggests fine reasons for seeing it far enough into reality that we can honor it, and feel wonder, awe, responsability and gratitude, for this mystery that is the gift of a lifetime.

How will we pass on the meaning of this event to future generations? By putting down the mythological fruit as was — and continues to be — suggested in the initial mythology so many years ago. This is Christian mythology of course but most every story has precedent for this idea. It is an idea of allowing our faith to come into our lives as a constant presence. It has to do with faith guiding the life of each individual in every moment. Faith will no longer be a set of rules for how others should live.

We as a society are comprised of individuals, and the individuals will be the ones to pass it on to the individuals who follow us in time. It has always been this way, even though there are few arguments alive today for the power of individuals to change their world. By all means, these sort of individuals exist and have existed and are yet to come, but their stories seem to be shared and emphasized less and less in our culture. They seem to come to us as one-off examples of individuality in a world of follow-the-leader. But nothing could be less true. Following the leader is an individual choice in every moment of a lifetime, and our collective identity is the sum total of individual choices. The choices of most folks do not seem to be based in either faith or recognition of equality.

The wisdom of unity — of incorporating this basic idea of one thing as the end, means, and beginning — has to do again with our mythology. To allude to the Christian story, the simplest way to get there is to stop eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is important, for good and evil represent the larger idea of duality. It is, in effect, the Tree of the Knowledge of Duality, the Tree of the Knowledge of the Illusion That Unity is Duality.

This should clearly explain why one might not be seeing unity. Duh! Put down the fruit. It's hallucinogenic. Eating the fruit brings us into the realm of the relative and results in what Alice calls "relative faith." This is faith underscored by doubt, insecurity, a deep need for ongoing proof of the possibility of unity. The fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Duality keeps one immersed in the hallucination that this here now is duality, struggling to get back to unity. There's no time to live as though this is unity, for we are busy proving that it is not proving that later it will be better, when duality is unified."

How will we then pass it on? Slowly it seems. Very slowly. But perhaps this is what the gift of time is for.

What wisdom do we want to focus on, and grow more deeply into? Engage the human skyline. Let hatred go. In Love stand side by side. The original, enduring wisdom of the ages from around the globe, which is the recognition of the pure equality of all living things in the image of the divine. This is the essence of unity diversified. It is a perspective of seeing the one always walking, breathing, eating, singing, and standing side by side. The attached video is an in-studio presentation of a song called "Side by Side" that Alice and I wrote in the days following 9/11.

"Side by Side"

If the smoke should ever end, I wonder if my head can mend, I've
Never seen an airplane do just that.
Side by side the skyline's changing - The shadows somehow stay the same —
Stop the video — I've had enough!!

Where are they now, what are their names? It's so different, it hasn't changed
love and hatred wake up side by side
paint life and love with a holy touch but it may never matter much
we think its someone else who gods the brush—

Some crowds always sing along, whoever's maddest, sing their song
Hatred underscores the lines — they just follow, follow blind — they
left there and their hearts remained — Disturb the shadows — their hands came—
forth. Angry. Deface the skyline — jet black.

I wish I had some poetry, some well put words, some imagery
He would know the world's a canvas when I was thru
And every brush could dip in love. But it really wouldn't matter much
Cause the sad truth is that art's just not his thing

and my heart goes out to all of you and long before this day was true
we were in each other's lives, I know how you will live in mine - Yes
You will always stay and guide, as I engage the human skyline
let hatred go - in love stand side by side

These wounded hearts are restless still, and young remain and likely will
Cause the happy truth is kindness is our thing—
The eyes and heart - the trilogy. Engage the human scenery
let hatred go - in love stand side by side

and my heart goes out to all of you and long before this day was true
we were in each other's lives, I know how you will live in mine - Yes
You will always stay and guide, as I engage the human skyline
let hatred go - in love stand side by side.

"Brightness Falls from the Air"

People falling, falling
from the sky

I cannot see
the color of their skin

I cannot hear
the languages they speak

or tell if they drop
silently, or scream.

To what God, gods or goddess
do they pray

as they drop like stones,
or birds with broken feathers

tumbling through
the astonished morning air?

I hope we can learn that all people, whatever our cultural background, ethnicity, or nationality, share being human together. Just because Islamic fanatics did this horrendous thing, for example, is not a reason to be suspicious of all Muslims, especially in the United States. And sadly, there are too many cases of intergroup hatred and prejudice all over the world: even after the Holocaust, even after Rwanda, even after 9/11.

I hope present and future generations will understand that we are six billion human beings on a remarkable planet in one solar system in a tiny corner of the universe. We depend on each other; only by recognizing what unites us will we really create a legacy from 9/11.

I cannot speak to the reaction others might or should have to an event like 9/11. Ten years ago I dropped off my two children, then 4 and 6, at school, and came home to a burning building, a spectacle on television, nothing more. Then, the sucker punch — another plane hit the other tower. We were under attack. Dazed, I wondered what we had done to make them so angry at us? And then I watched in horror as we were marshaled by our president toward war, endless war. And we have learned nothing from this. My children, now 14 and 16, don't remember my husband and I taking them to Washington DC to march against going to war. It's a spectacle on television to them, nothing more.

I'm angry about 9/11. Not at the few that planned and committed the act, but us and our response. I feel less safe and more intruded upon now than before 9/11. And I'm not happy about that.

Folks have not learned why others would have wanted to do that act to us. They "hate" anything Islamic. (I'm a guy whose first political act many years ago was to campaign for Barry Goldwater and I'll still stump for him over some of the things LBJ did, not your bleeding heart start.) They haven't learned to difference between the many groups that make up Islam, as they have branches, like Christianity. They haven't opened up their homes to visitors from Islamic countries. They fear, over learn. Those who act so among "us" scare me a lot.

I was scheduled to receive an award on 9/11 for building and promoting an organization in Portland, Oregon: Friends of Trees. I was treasurer from essentially a cramped office until the annual budget was $800,000. The organization was a bottom up organization that got folks to pay something for street trees in front of their homes so they would care for was was, in truth, a public asset. That type of perspective has suffered from 9/11, as it pulls us from Walk Kelly's wonderful observation through Pogo: "We've seen the enemy and he is us."

We need to learn how to live, not how to fear. As this context is learn how to "be." I'd add and we need to learn how to be with others.

As time moves us forward and away from September 11th, 2001 I hope we are understanding that 9/11 did not really change us as people, and certainly not as Americans. Sept. 11th gave America a reason to practice retaliatory violence, which has been at the heart of humanly fractured civilization since the beginning of time. Sept. 11th did not change us, it just revealed who we have always been, people of retribution.

I want to focus on learning how to make our world a better place, to extend the good to the all and to grow more deeply into extending forgiveness and extending peace.

The Eleventh of September 2001 will always remain etched in my memories. Even today, pictures of the planes slicing into the World Trade Center brings me to tears. The passenger and crews of the planes. The office workers, the fire fighters, the police officers.

From New Jersey, I watched both towers burn, then one tower, and soon the other slowly collapse into an ever widening cloud of dust and smoke. I recall saying out loud "No…that cannot be happening" and praying for all those people.

I wonder what force can drive persons to such acts of hatred? What can bring people to undertake such brutal an act of killing innocent people in the name of "god"? When you look at photos of the "mastermind" of that day, Mohammed Atta, the cold emptiness in his eyes reflect only one thing — on that day the face of evil was his.

Did we learn anything? Hopefully, the answer is yes. Not with better security screening or no fly lists. Sadly, we learned that in some resides a fire of rage and hatred. It is our purpose to extinguish that fire. The question is how?

What can one do? Many things. We should never, ever forget that day. We should always remember that it took 19 men, in four planes, in a few hours to kill nearly 3,000 people and to change the world forever. Only 19 men…

One day about five years ago,I went to Vermont to spend a few days with my cousin. Knowing how much I have always loved poetry, she thought I would enjoy visiting the grave site of Robert Frost. Poetry will touch spaces and places in me and for me that prose cannot and then bring me to that good place, that good space again refreshed or healed or alive. So,I thought it was a great idea.

After quietly ambling our way down through the grave yard we found Frost's grave side where we sat for a while and talked about our families, the arts and life. Before leaving, I decide to make a headstone etching of the inscription that he chose for the stone. When pondered it is a lot to take in. It reads:

"I HAD A LOVER'S QUARREL WITH THE WORLD"

As I listened to the podcast I thought and remembered the faces and names of the Iraqi women that I lived in community with, here in the US, during the first Gulf War. Some of them are still living and
continue working in schools and a hospital in Iraq. I remembered the stories the older women told of the time when the Shah and his family hid in Hospital. Iraq has never felt very far away.

I recalled a conversation I had last summer with a classmate of mine, who lived down the street from me growing up. She stopped to talk with me on her way to see her mother in her mid 80's. Jaundice and breathing with great difficulty she was home visiting, while awaiting a liver transplant for herself. Living down wind, close to the Twin Towers NY was as close as the tiny table we sat at drinking coffee.
As I listened, it was her eulogy that I could hear her sharing. How glad I was to have heard it from her then and not later this past spring when her husband eulogized her at a service here in RI.

Who do we want to become? At least from time to time, and in the measure that we can less quarrelsome lovers, that would be good.

After your broadcast two weeks ago I had an occasion that demanded to be sent in to your accounts.

I was outside playing frisbee with my nephew after listening to your afternoon show Sunday before last when post-9/11 suddenly aligned with Sept. 11,2001.

Our town is under the southern flight paths from Metro Airport (DWC), and audible, visible, low-flying jetliners are an everyday experience outside. as my nephew and I were playing catch with a frisbee in the backyard, an unusually noticeable murmur from a jet caused me to turn around and look up.

A 747 was banking into a turn unusually low - just several hundred feet. As I did a mental double-take - yes, that was a jumbo jet and yes it was that low - the facts of United Flight 93 unreeled past my thoughts as my eyes tracked the plane.

A wide body airliner with all aboard that suddenly dived from the sky into some acres of rural Pennsylvania. Not from any mechanical crisis or pilot error, but purposefully, as the hijackers who'd committed themselves to a kamikaze mission were losing control to the passengers.

And this was the fourth occurrence that day, most notable insofar as this plane didn't complete it's mission by coming down on a city, major installation, or landmark. Rural Pennsylvania, as the passengers acted while the plane was over the countryside; an empty field not a farmyard by providence or happenstance.

As I watched the plane turning I was suddenly very aware of all the traffic overhead, all the airliners I'd seen while out in the yard or in the field across the street. Had I really never had this train of thought before over all these years, or had I made that connection and than sublimated it as one of the less-likely acts of God I can neither prepare for or prevent? I was left feeling suddenly very raw. That sensation I later remembered as being so characteristic of that afternoon and of the following days.The ground under my feet was that of a decade ago.

Standing in the slanting afternoon sunlight of a calm day in earliest autumn, it was as if all the alterations in thought over the intervening years were highlighted, silhouetted and were clear from the long shadows trailing from them.

More poetic, more literary than I intended, but I've been re-experiencing the minute. It's good to share.

When I came online to post this, synchronicity happened: a main news story was the account of then Lt. Heather Penney, wing-woman on the flight scrambled at once out of Andrews AFB to intercept United 93. With no weapons mounted on their F-16s but gun ammo to use against a large jet filled with innocent civilians, she and her leader, Colonel Sass, had independently reached the same conclusion; their surest and quickest course was for one of them to ram the plane to bring it down at once in one place. I'd be interested to know how much time elapsed between take-off and notification that U93 had crashed. News earlier this week of a second living Medal of Honor nominee, American pride, yes but it makes me sad that kind of heroism now gets the chance to happen.

The date has an additional significance here, my younger brother's birthday is on the tenth. I can remember standing in the dining room and telling him that the date would be significant now, "like the day before Pearl Harbor," agreeing that that would be freaky and how lucky it was the day "before," not "on." He would later follow my younger sister's footsteps and join the Air Force for a term and I will have to ask if and how any of the above had to do with that.
My nephew, 8, was born a year and a half later, 6 months after the first Patriot Day. For him, the decade just past is the way thing have always been and the way that was and is.

What we should take from 9/11 is that hate and violence is still evident in the world.
[Edit Question Response] Q: Edited Comment
A: At first I really didnt want to listen to this broadcast, I am kind of sick of hearing about 9/11. I am not saying that I don't care about what happened to the thousands of innocent Americans who lost their lives. That is not what I'm saying. God bless those people. But I don't think that those we lost would want us to dwell on the past and never learn anything from the tragic event.

On a personal note, my aunt Tammie worked and still works for American Airlines. She lives in Washington D.C. Her normal flight that she flies, was the flight that hit the pentagon. The day before 9/11, her father had been in the hospital, he was dying from cancer. She didn't go to work the next day because her father had died. On 9/11 she lost every coworker that she normally worked with. The only reason her life was spared is because she lost her father the day before.

So when I say I feel compassion for those who lost their lives, I really mean it. But just like those on the broadcast were discussing, we Americans are not looking at the bigger picture. We are not the only victims affected by that day! They also kept discussing repentance and that we should of repented the day before 9/11, in the 1800's, 1900's, and even now. Those who lost their lives God bless, but did we almost do this to ourselves?

When Osama Bin Laden was caught and killed, the young people of America where gathering around the white house celebrating. Me, not being too patriotic, I was disgusted by this. How can we celebrate the death of a man? Just as stated in the broadcast "by hunting down terrorists we are in danger of engaging with our enemies and becoming like them." We were already like this. Do we not remember all the wars prior to this? Do we not remember all the innocent lives that were lost, due to the hands of Americans?

What we should take from 9/11 is that hate and violence is still evident in the world. Who is going to change this? Will we stay mourning all those who lost their lives, or will one of us stand up and make a difference in the world?

apples