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 Centers.
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 go here and here 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:
Denial is not an Option
We Cannot Escape History
Religion is Not Going Away
The Power of Passion