The week that changed the world
Andrea Candy shares her efforts to come to terms with the September 11 crisis and articulates some of the issues raised by the tragedy.
Like many New Zealanders, I'm in bed when I first hear it. My husband - who goes to work early - phones me at 7.00 am to wake me up. "Planes have been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Centre which is burning. The Pentagon's also been hit. The President's been taken to a secure location. Warships are standing off the coast of Virginia. This is no joke - no movie. It's total chaos."
It sounds like something from War of the Worlds. My first reaction is a journalist's: intense interest and a desire for the facts. The radio (we don't have television) stays on for the next two hours until it's time for me to go to work.
The information slowly sinks in, and its significance starts to resonate. Commercial jets used as missiles . . . unbelievable destruction . . . the symbols of America's commercial and military might struck down in a single blow . . . thousands dead in fire and rubble . . . .
I am shocked and awed, but strangely unsurprised, deep down. The question starts to roll around - "Is this it? Is this the beginning of the end of the world?"
I struggle through four or five hours at work, aghast that things that seemed so important yesterday now appear so trivial. How can life continue as normal in the face of such an apocalypse? I escape up one of Auckland's hills briefly and see my city, spread out like a cat in the warm spring sunshine. It looks small and very beautiful, far away at the end of the earth.
By the end of the day I am going through the motions with enormous effort as my mind and soul begin to shut down under the weight of such an enormous thing. But I am also angry. Not, as might be expected, at the terrorists, but at the United States of America, the great empire.
I am reading a book about Afghanistan1 and learning of the huge ancient empires that used to exist in that region, every bit as glorious and powerful as America in the 20th century. Nothing exists of those empires now except curious ruins in the barren mountains. I had wondered idly to myself how long it would be before America, and the whole system of capitalism and democracy it represents, came to an end. Now it seems to have happened - the blow that makes the whole thing crumble. Indeed, how are the mighty fallen!
The thirst for information continues as, along with the rest of the Western world, I try to make sense of what has happened. I am never far from the radio, except at work. I buy extra editions of the newspaper and go over it and over it, searching for clues.
The rhetoric begins to annoy me. President Bush sounds like a worn-out movie hero, using language that seems desperately irrelevant, and ghastly in its hypocrisy. There is talk of "innocent victims", "attacks on civilisation itself", "threats to values we hold dear", "principles cherished by the free world", the "sanctity of human life".
Against such words rise visions of the killing fields of the earth - Hiroshima, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kuwait - plus displaced people by the millions, gutted economies, impoverished workers. And everywhere in my visions are television sets, Coca Cola cans, and the footprints of American GIs.
In the evening I watch a friend's television and catch up, not only on the news of the day, but yesterday's on tape as well. It's too much, and I am saturated. The endless repetition of the crumbling towers makes it appear all the more like a bad movie. And there seems no way for the media to handle the immensity of the event without descending into shallow sentimentality or over-inflating with hype.
I am left with a huge why? Not just for the act itself, but why should American suffering, great as it is, suddenly be more important than anybody else's in this anguished world?
My brain and heart are too full - awash with analysis and emotion. I feel like I'm trying to work out a giant jigsaw puzzle, but most of the pieces are missing, or confusingly doublesided. If only I could get even one or two to match, the whole thing would fall simply, devastatingly into place.
And now they start to talk about war. God forbid. Against whom?
We wake up with the sinking feeling that the tragedy is still there. It hasn't gone away overnight. And it won't go away for a very long time. The tension is unbearable, as we wait with dread for the third world war to begin.
The worst thing is the images of people falling out of windows, and the stories of little children waiting in vain for their parents to come and collect them from school.
I want to hunch up, unmoving for a long time, staring into space. A deep ache takes me by surprise as I stand at the sink, preparing dinner, and I tremble, or want to wail and moan, before the rational side of my brain tells me to stop being melodramatic.
Actually, most of the time, my heart refuses to absorb the impact of individuals' shattered lives and I resort instead to rabid, paranoid speculations about geopolitics. I can't get past the thought "You reap what you sow", and mentally write angry letters to the editor of the New Zealand Herald. My patient husband does his best to calm the worst of my outbursts.
I hear the countries of the West closing in on themselves, tightening security, hunkering down, looking inward with anxiety and outward with fear. Maybe it will be like the aftermath of the sack of Rome, when the barbarians invaded civilisation and the Dark Ages began. Then I remember that the Dark Ages weren't actually as dark as all that. God kept a light burning, with the help of some Irish monks, and did his work of redemption in spite of the collapse of the empire.
I wonder, if this crisis precipitates another Dark Age, whether I and my fellow believers are prepared for the challenge. I meditate on the nature of the church and how it will be if we can no longer rely on the structures and lifestyle we are used to.
Sleep doesn't come easily. Fears for the future and bitter thoughts about the pride of man roil around in my head.
A day filled with domestic tasks, all executed with a crushing sense of dislocation. Preoccupied parents do not make for a calm household. But what can I say when my sons bring me their Lego constructions to admire - hybrid fighting machines, part plane, part ship, part alien craft, and all of them bristling with arms?
I sort out their rivalries with one ear on Handel's "Messiah":
I am beginning to glimpse the hand of a mighty God at work. I am aware that I am being driven to my knees, and so I finally lay aside the newspapers and the radio and pick up my Bible. But I do not find comfort in a loving God - only a terribly just one. I wish the tears would come.
Following references to 'towers', I discover a lament for Tyre in Ezekiel 26-28, and in the process, the devastatingly simple key to the jigsaw puzzle: pride comes before a fall. I track the theme through Isaiah:
But then, in a warning against pointing the finger anywhere, Jesus reminds me:
And those who died when the tower fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.3
The idea is mind-boggling. Could this evil act be the trigger to the revival that the Church has been awaiting for so long? Perhaps what God cannot accomplish by blessing his people, he has to bring about by hurting and humbling them. My prayer becomes a yearning for a righteous response and for redemptive rather than purposeless suffering.
The day ends with the measured harmonies of Fauré's "Libera me":
This is the worst day so far; church is most discomforting. I can't help it: Allahu Akbar beats in my head like a pulse. God is indeed most great and just and terrible and I have no way to comprehend his ways at all. The songs we sing about love and personal salvation seem as sustaining right now as candy floss in a hurricane.
I think about the children of the world and what they will inherit from us. I am overcome with shame and a sense of failure as a member of Christendom - that after all these centuries we have forgotten The Way, so often hijacking Jesus to Western imperialism. Truly, we have all "sinned in ignorance, sinned in weakness, sinned through our own deliberate fault".
I can barely take communion, and flee, finally in tears.
What I really want to do is scream, howl, tear my clothes, sit in sackcloth and ashes and put dust on my head, but I am aware that the options for expressing grief in Auckland's leafy suburbs are limited. I bewail the inability of my culture to provide adequate symbols for repentance.
In the afternoon, we help our god-daughter celebrate her fifth birthday. It's a lovely teaparty with friends, marred by a sudden vision, as if from a future perspective, that we are fiddling with the fine china on the decks of the Titanic.
Meanwhile, the children play a computer game which involves shooting down towers with cannonballs from ships . . . .
Will it always be like this? This two-layered consciousness of another significance behind the ordinary? Is this what it's like to live at war? Will future generations look back on these entertainments and small things and think "How could they, at such a time as that?"
By the end of the day, however, I know that Life Goes On, and that's where salvation is to be found. To take care, give and receive grace in the 'trivial' transactions of mundane existence is as important as world-shattering events in the total scheme of things. In the sacrament of the ordinary bread of life, in all its skewed brokeness, Jesus is incarnated, if I allow myself to see him there.
I even manage to meditate, positively for a change, on some 'what if?' scenarios. What if there were an international move towards repentance, led by God's people? What if a third way could be found, beyond the rhetoric, between appeasement and retaliation? It's hard to imagine, but a little light gleams in the darkness.
A calmer day. My mental stereo flips to Dylan's "Ring them Bells" with the lines: The world's on its side. Time is running backwards and so is the Bride.
I pay a quick visit to the small Holocaust Gallery at the Auckland Museum to catch the words of Etty Hillesum recorded there. She was a young Dutch Jewish student whose diaries during the Nazi pogroms are a testament to the power of an ordinary life lived consciously for a higher purpose. She said:
Against every new outrage and every fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness.
As I make my way out of the museum again past the ranks and rows of the dead, I wonder what all those soldiers really died for and whether their sacrifice was worth it. I don't know what I am more afraid of - the spread of terrorism in the world, or the xenophobia and totalitarianism which may arise in response to it.
After school I speak with an Iranian woman, the parent of children who attend my sons' school. I want to know how she feels, now that the spotlight is on people of Middle Eastern origin. We find common ground in agreeing that terrible things have been done in the name of our respective religions, but she gives me pause when she remarks "We serve the same God". I wonder whether I and my fellow Christians are guilty of misrepresenting God as chiefly a God of mercy, just as her fellow Muslims often present a distorted view of his implacable judgement.
The expected headlines arrive now with a dull thud, rather than stabbing shock. President Bush declares a crusade on terrorism and delivers an ultimatum for the release of Osama bin Laden; the Taleban responds with a jihad of its own. Thousands of displaced Afghans are trapped in a country already shattered by 20 years of invasion and civil war. How much more can they take?
Meanwhile, the US stockmarket reopens and Americans are urged to spend their way out of grief and disaster.
But there's only so much living in limbo I can do. My spirit is finding a level it can operate on and shuts out the rest. Besides, the big news story has been overtaken by other crises, both nationally and across the Tasman. It's going to be a long haul, full of uncertainty about the wider implications.
My prayers now, such as they are, are beyond words. I've heard and said too many in the past week. But this one seems most apt in its simplicity:
Praise be to God, Lord of the two Worlds
The most merciful and most forgiving
Lord of the day of Judgement
It is You who we adore and in Whom we seek help
Guide us along the straight path
The path of those who are righteous
Not that of those who suffer Your wrath
Or of those who stray.
It's the opening verse of the Qur'an, prayed five times a day by Muslims around the globe. At the end of a week that changed the world, I can do no more or less than add my fervent "Amen".
TWO MONTHS LATER . . .
The inevitable has happened. America is bombing Afghanistan. There are vague threats about further terrorist strikes, and paranoia goes up a notch with each new anthrax scare.
There's a growing sense of weariness now, born of having to live for a long time with ambivalence and conflicting emotions. I hate what war does in hardening attitudes and doubling standards, making things appear more simple than they really are. At the same time, I recognise that some action had to be taken in response to the attacks on America. I resent the 'goodies and baddies' rhetoric, but deep down, I know I'm looking for an underdog to cheer for.
I am chilled by the terrorists' cold-blooded, longterm planning of mass destruction; equally sickened by President Bush's form of 'justice'. I applaud the dropping of food parcels to starving Afghans but do they really have to include peanut butter?
Along with the weariness is guilt. A deep-seated guilt about being able to live freely and normally in a beautiful country with three good meals a day, when so many others are suffering terrible privations. But what can we do? We're powerless to stop the bombing; stop the apparently inevitable cycle of strike and counterstrike; do anything constructive or meaningful beyond a paltry donation to an aid organisation.
Friends and colleagues are beginning to take 'the war' into account in planning their immediate future, especially if it involves overseas travel. Life has changed for everyone, if only in subtle, indirect ways so far. But if I let it, anxiety about the future runs rampant and I feel that something much bigger and far worse is about to break in upon us all.
If there's anything good about this crisis it's going to be found in reassessing personal priorities and attitudes to everyday reality. Like a depth charge going off at the bottom of the ocean, the events of September 11 have disturbed the foundations. The ripples will take a while to come to the surface. Right now, for me anyway, they're in the form of questions.
How can I balance awareness of the big wide world with effective living in my local domestic world without cracking under the strain?
How can I turn the negative energy of worry about the future into positive gratitude for the blessings of the present?
How can I turn a raging sense of injustice and powerlessness into affirmative action on behalf of the poor and oppressed whose lives I can influence?
How can I prepare for what seems inevitable without being paranoid?
Where is real, gutsy, flesh-and-blood hope to be found beyond mere slogans?
I am aware that I may never find answers, but wearying though the attempt is, I should at least continue to ask the questions. I'm also very conscious that there are some complex and difficult lessons to be learned in the school of prayer, if I'm prepared to enlist.
Andrea Candy trained as a journalist and worked for ten years for Youth for Christ and Christian Broadcasting before becoming a mother in 1991. She continues to write for radio and works part-time for a market research company. Andrea lives with her husband Glen and their two sons in One Tree Hill, Auckland.