Ten Years Later
Any one of age remembers exactly where they were ten years
ago when the first planes struck New York’s World Trade
At the time we all knew that this traumatic day would never
be forgotten. Not just by the families who lost their loved
ones, but by all of us. The sheer chutzpah of the attacks
– striking at the heart and center of the Western World,
leaving an indelible scar on Manhattan’s famed skyline;
the striking events of that dark Tuesday morning – who can
forget the streaming images implanted in our memories of
the airplanes slicing through the towers; the desperate
people jumping from the buildings; the horrified soot covered
faces of those running from the scene, the billowing smoke
rising for days on end to the downtown heavens, the streaming
flow of people running from the scene, crossing the bridges
– every haunting detail of 9/11 assured that this ignoble
date would be forever etched in the annals of history.
Just say the word 9/11 (nine-eleven), and everyone knows
exactly what you are talking about.
But of all the powerful experiences of that day – both
the tragic ones as well as the noble acts of courage – the
one that perhaps endures the most is the utter incomprehensibility
of the attacks.
Today, just as then – despite the decade that has passed,
and all the intelligence (if you can call it that), wars
fought, technologies developed – we are no closer to making
sense and understanding the events of 9/11: Why were we
attacked? What did Bin-Laden and Al Qaeda want to achieve
with these aggressive acts?
The only thing we know certain after 9/11 is that we have
entered an age of uncertainty. Before that date America
was riding high, brimming with confidence, everything was
possible. This country – and the general Western world –
felt invincible. We saw violence and terrorism centered
in the Middle East, mostly focused on Israel. We were immune,
or so we thought, from the ills plaguing that primitive
region. We were, after all, an “advanced” society, immersed
in economic growth, technological innovation; we were –
just like the Titanic’s maiden voyage – unsinkable.
Then came September 11, 2011. A high profile attack on
American soil – striking the financial engine room of New
York and the Pentagon in Washington. And suddenly the world
equation changed – or more accurately: our eyes were opened
to a new reality: Muslim fundamentalists see the USA and
the Western World as an enemy. Terrorism is global, and
it punched America in the eye.
Now a decade later, with the wisdom of retrospect, we can
say that 9/11 – in the wee dawn hours of the 21st
century – ushered in a new age: An age of uncertainty.
Look what happened since. In addition to our national security
being shaken to the core – something you can tangibly feel
every time you board a plane – our economy has followed
suit. Just as it seemed that prosperity would keep accelerating,
markets would never stop rising, and technologies were advancing
at a breathtaking pace, on the verge of reaching digital
utopia, we have all been reminded of age-old human vices
and the fragility of our structures.
At the opening bell – or falling ball – of the 21st
century, we were sure that technology would emancipate the
world; money would be flowing in every direction; our confidence
was at its highest point. Even the sky was not the limit.
Just 11 years into the young century, we are undergoing
our first serious transition, marking the shift from one
state to another. From economics to politics, the United
States and the world at large are experiencing seismic tremors.
We must acknowledge the fact that since 9/11 there has
been no attack on America in the last ten years. We did
something right. But the shadow of that fateful day still
hangs low and heavily over us. The doubts and uncertainty
it has sowed remain very real and threatening.
In a way Bin-Laden (though dead now) accomplished his goal:
To weaken the resolve and confidence of the West – the world
he and his colleagues consider “decadent,” the “crusaders”
who together with the “Zionists” are at war with G-d’s plan
for Muslim dominance (see By
the Rivers of Babylon).
The Good News
Now for the good news.
Fundamental to Torah psychology is the confidence that
every challenge is preceded by its solution, as every illness
is preceded by its cure. This gives us the strength to face
any challenge knowing that it can always be conquered.
A second, and equally important principle is that every
negative can be turned into a positive. Even loss and destruction
– including what happened on 9/11 – can and ought to be
channeled and transformed into a force for good. This does
not justify or minimize the loss; it only tells us that
after the fact even a liability can become an asset.
The Torah takes this a step further: Every new breakthrough
is preceded by the meltdown of the status quo. Like a new
building that can only be built after the old one has been
razed, every true innovation is possible only when the previous
institutions and structures collapse. Because as long as
we are stuck in an old state, we cannot expect to assume
a new state. To allow for a new layer of skin, the previous
one has to be shed, leaving a vacuum between two paradigms,
the old and the new.
This in-between, transition, state can be very disconcerting,
because at the point of the crack we are neither there or
here – we cannot depend on past structures, and we do not
yet have the new ones in place. Nature abhors a vacuum,
as do we. Yet, there is no other way to grow and mature.
When our systems seem to be failing the key thing then
is to remember the bigger picture: We are in the process
of a journey, which has twists and turns, that often don’t
allow you to see your destination. We must stay the course
and not allow the present unknown deter us from forging
ahead. Think of it like the frame of a film: while you are
in the present frame you cannot see what the next frames
will bring. The mistake most people make is to think that
the current frame is the end of the story.
Here is where we can distinguish between “the men and the
boys.” Sucked into the vortex of the whirlpool it is very
difficult to see outside of our own selves. Mired in self-interest
and in the challenges of the moment, our vision is heavily
clouded. To recognize the forest from the trees requires
stepping back, climbing up, and take in the scene from a
birds’ eye view. When we are able to transcend immediate
circumstances, it becomes quite evident that we are in a
period of transition from one age into the next.
Which is why these shifts are so disconcerting and utterly
unnerving, even traumatic. Whenever we are shaken from our
reverie and torn from our comfort zones, we undoubtedly
will feel quite upset and disturbed.
Yet, it is precisely at these points in time – when we
blindly turn the corner, leaving the past behind and facing
an unknown future – that allow us, if we only let go, to
see a bigger picture, and allow it to inform the “smaller
picture” of our daily lives.
When you think about it, periods like this are inevitable.
Like a healthy immune system, every few years our systems
have to go through a reality check and a market correction
(no pun intended), to realign us and help achieve balance.
The boys will only see the here and now. They can thus
be overcome by fear and indecision based on the unpredictability
of world affairs. The men will realize that we are in the
process of growth, and we must see it through, patiently,
humbly, and filled with hope and courage.
What Does the Future Hold?
So what does the future hold?
Our Torah sages discuss in various places about the present
“clash of civilizations.” One particular Midrash states:
The King of Poros (Persia) will bring destruction to the
entire world, and all the nations will be outraged and confused…
and Jews will be outraged and confused and say: where shall
we come and go, where shall we come and go? G-d will
answer them: My children, do not be afraid. Everything I
have done, I have done for you. Why are you afraid, do not
fear, the time of your Redemption has arrived…
The end game of 9/11 is a redeemed world. This does not
justify or diminish the losses and pain of those lost on
that day. It only tells us that the battles being waged
today are part of a difficult process that began long ago
of man making peace with G-d. From the beginning of time,
history is witness to a fundamental clash between matter
and spirit, between the material life and the spiritual
one. In its present reincarnation this is today’s battle
between faith and modernity.
Every individual, every community, every nation will at
some point have to make peace between its “body” and “soul.”
But until it does, the war goes on.
Ten years ago, after the 9/11 attacks (when I actually
began writing this weekly column), I wrote an elaborate
series of articles addressing the roots of today’s conflict
and what is foretold about their conclusion, as well as
what we can do to help bring on a peaceful world. Please
to read them.
September 11 marks the day when this battle turned global.
Now our time has come to not be afraid, but to rise to the
occasion and find ways to bring on personal and global redemption.
9/11 will always be remembered. But it is up to us to determine
how it will be remembered. Will it be remembered
as a day of death and destruction, or a day that began a
new world order?
May we be blessed with the vision and strength to turn
September 11 into a day that helped usher in redemption
to the world.
That’s as far as analysis goes. Next week we will address
some lessons that we can learn from September 11 – as we
look back over the past 10 years.
We will focus on five of what are certainly a multitude
of messages that can be gleaned from this watershed moment: