Sunday, September 13, 2009

I looked up at the clock

above the windshield of the bus. It was seventeen minutes past noon. We sped past wet houses and top-heavy rice fields, heading for Sendai and the Johzenji Street Jazz Festival. Back home in New Jersey, across the Hudson from Manhattan, it was still September 11th. This moment eight years ago, smoke was still billowing. People remained on the streets, giving of themselves, for no other reason than other people needed them. Confusion still reigned. The dust, it seemed, would never completely settle.

My students and co-workers approached me with genuine sorrow in the following days. ‘I’m sorry about what happened in your country,’ they said to me in their best English. I’d arrived in Japan on September 1st. I was as far away from home as I’d ever been. But I looked into the eyes of people who knew only that I was from ‘there’; I read in the Japan Times of the condolences, the grief and the resolve so many shared with us; I watched on the news as our global friends and neighbors offered their hands, and I sensed an intimacy with the rest of the world I could never have imagined possible.

Watching those hands being withdrawn, one by one, was like a slow-motion sock in the gut.

It is not quite right to say 9/11 was tragic. Tragic events occur suddenly, randomly. Isolated from human intention. Devoid of foundation or prelude. Brutus didn’t trip over his shoelace and accidentally fall kitchen knife first into Caesar. Juliet wasn’t reaching for a Sprite. Human perception, volition and action give rise to a series of events culminating in tragedy.

To mistakenly call the events of 9/11 tragic may only be a matter of semantics. Ignoring the complexities of the preceding acts and actors, however, is a much more dangerous proposition. ‘Because they hate us’ may help anaesthetize the wounds, but will leave us with deeper, uglier scars.

A friend of mine was stranded in Europe in the days following the attacks, unable to get a flight back to the US. His reaction, conveyed in an email: ‘Considering the big picture, this is nothing.’

I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time. Did he believe that more horrific days were on the way? Was he saying that our collective and personal pain amounted to little more than a blip on the Richter scale of human suffering? Whatever the implication, I know he was not out to diminish the scope or significance of anyone’s sorrow, rage or despair. But that we alone understand what it means to suffer is by no means a claim we can make.

The world did mourn with us. I saw a small slice of it firsthand. Yet that intimacy, that global sense of brotherhood, would quickly dry up if we decided we above all others are entitled to the wounds we lick. Yes, we have our horror stories. But our country is blessed. And it hits us not when we raise our gloves to beat down the rest of the world, but when we look toward the millions of human beings who are suffering in ways we can scarcely comprehend, in places that by the grace of God we will never have to see. On September 11th, this is the sock in the gut we need to open ourselves to.

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