When we look back over any historical period, it can easily seem to be an indistinguishable blur of names, dates, places and events. But when we look back at the history surrounding our own time, there are usually several instances when certain historical milestones sear themselves into our mind – a frozen moment whose imagery and place is retained clearly in our consciousness for our lifetime. Unfortunately, all too often these moments involve death.
For my father, born in the then-“Indian Territory,” it was his sitting in a coffee shop and hearing that Oklahoma’s favorite son, Will Rogers, had died in a plane crash. For many of a departing generation, it was the radio announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, followed 3½ years later by the death of Franklin Roosevelt on the very eve of victory in World War II. Or perhaps it was the actual Victory Day in Europe (V-E Day) and/or Japan (V-J Day) that concluded those hostilities.
For me, and perhaps for many of my generation, such moments started with John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, followed by Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Or the landing on the moon in July 1969 that exemplified the realization of a powerful human dream. In the 1970s, Elvis’ death closed out the bobby-sox 50’s; John Lennon’s killing closed the idealistic 60’s. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and freedom won out over oppression as Europe began to become one continent and belatedly fulfill the promise of World War II.
But the moment that most all living Americans now share is the day of September 11, 2001, and its almost surreal suspended aftermath. 3000 innocent people killed; a towering commercial center obliterated; a plane crash in Pennsylvania; an airborne ramming of the Pentagon. Two jetliners deliberately plowing into the Twin Towers is a still-life visual never forgotten – along with the shock of its intentionality, and the incomprehensible loss of the many would-be rescuers rushing in hopelessly to try to save the victims. Only to become victims themselves.
Regardless of the controversies that followed – the permanent changes in air travel; the disturbing compromises of our legal rights; one questionable war fought and now “stabilized” with 50,000 remaining soldiers; another war of ongoing fighting for nine long years, seemingly unending; the 9-1-1 cry for help that we did not answer; nearly $1 trillion spent – the suffering of then- through-now remains all too real and unforgotten. The images remain fresh and unchanged. Each of us remembers exactly where we were, what we thought, how we felt; it is our own personal story of “9-11.”
For me, I remember not only that day, and the emotional week thereafter, but an earlier connected moment. Three months before 9-11, I was attending a Buddhist conference in New York City. Thoughts and words of peace, of quiet, of connection, of expansive spirit filled all of the attendees. The gathering was held at the Sheraton Hotel, located in the Twin Towers Plaza. My room in the hotel was about 20 stories up; it looked directly into the windows of one of the adjacent towers, seemingly no more than 20’ away. Down below I could see the interior courtyard of the Plaza, and watch the people walking through and gathering for a moment of rest, or for a snack food. It was in that courtyard that I bought my souvenir New York City T-shirt. It was where I had verbally expressed the comment in that moment about how lucky I felt to be able to be living a good, productive and satisfying life.
Three months later, those words, thoughts and memories were still with me as I sat in front of a television screen and watched that entire physical setting being obliterated. Some of the people I had watched from my hotel window were likely now gone, along with thousands more I had not seen. I was part of that scene, yet I was not. I felt a personal connection to that place, yet I was not connected. It may have been a national moment, but it was still personal. Yet for a lot of others unable to respond, powerless to change what happened, for whom the victims had names and faces and individual stories, 9-11 was a whole lot more personal.
It somehow does not seem right to celebrate the death of any human being. Taking a life, for any reason, should never be done casually, never become too easily done. Yet the announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader and embodiment of the 9-11 and other wanton killings, tempts us to feel such a cheering, if not outright joy. But I think it better to quietly focus my thoughts more on a sense of inevitable resolution, of the closing of a 10-year cycle of hate personified by one individual. Killing in revenge leaves us vulnerable to becoming the very killer we wish to reject. It might have been nice, therefore, to have been able to bring bin Laden back alive to face a trial for “crimes against humanity” and to face a justice he chose not to give to others. But that was always unlikely. Like Hitler, Tojo and others before him, bin Laden’s death was likely inevitable. The killing of bin Laden hopefully comes not from revenge, but is simply from the natural result that “living by the sword, you die by the sword.” Or “as you sew, so shall you reap.” Violence begets violence; killing begets killing. In that thought is a quiet but important closure, while we also remember to honor the many innocent victims of his despicable actions.
Killing Osama bin Laden does not end terrorism in this world. It will in fact incite a greater commitment to terrorism among those who will choose to martyr his death. But his death ends a symbol of indiscriminate killing, and like words, symbols are important. It says that, in the end, terrorism will not triumph, and good people will ultimately persevere and defeat such evil and its actions. It is not a difference nor division of race, of nationality, of ethnicity, of religious affiliation. It is simply a difference of choosing to do good towards all others or to do harm. Ultimately, no cause under any political or religious banner justifies the indiscriminate slaughter of human beings. For those to choose to slaughter, I leave any further judgment of them to God.