We had hoped, as part of our "Ten Years Later" series, to share the 9/11 reflections of Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. (You can read our earlier interviews with Gregorian here and here.) Unfortunately, Dr. Gregorian was busy with 9/11 commemorative events and his responsibilities as a member of the 9/11 Memorial board.
However, the folks at Carnegie did graciously allow us to reprint an essay written by Dr. Gregorian that appeared in the September/October issue of World Affairs. We hope you enjoy it.
It is still shocking to remember how utterly the peace of that beautiful September day was shattered. The image of the Twin Towers as they fell to earth, carrying with them so many souls, became the collective symbol of our grief. After all, the World Trade Center towers were the icon of American strength and economic power and emblematic of New York City as a world capital of finance.
It was possible, that day, to believe that the towering strength of our nation was itself, in some fundamental way, at risk. But that did not prove to be so. The cowardly attacks that we endured, which did not distinguish between people of different races, ethnicities, faiths, or beliefs, did not divide us but instead forged stronger bonds between us. And nowhere was the indivisibility of those bonds more evident than at the memorial service at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on September 23.
Prior to that service, most Americans had seen or taken part in religious ceremonies particular to their own faith, be it Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or other. But it is probably fair to say that most Americans had never seen or heard a Muslim cleric, let alone a group of Muslim imams taking part in an ecumenical service. On September 23, however, that is exactly what happened. I was watching the service on television, and as the rabbis, priests, ministers, and other members of the clergy made deeply moving and heartfelt remarks, I found myself greatly affected by their words. Still, it was with a mounting sense of apprehension that I waited to hear what would happen when Muslim clerics came to the podium to speak. As I waited for the first of them to utter the first words of prayer in Arabic, my heart, as they say, was in my mouth. I thought that members of the victims’ families, as well as others in the audience, might send the imams off the stage amid a flurry of catcalls. They did not. Everyone present listened with the same attention and respect as had been accorded the representatives of all the other religions. The dignity and solemnity of the day was unbroken. The memory of those who had died was uniformly held in reverence because it was understood by every individual at Yankee Stadium that day, and the millions watching and listening elsewhere, that the terrorists had targeted all of us who happened to be on American soil the morning of September 11. They recognized no differences between us. They spared no one based on class or race or nationality, or even religion.
Those who spoke at the "Prayer for America" service were eloquent in expressing how, as Americans, we are one people sharing one ideal of peace and solidarity. Imam Izak-El Mu'eed Pasha, who was the first Muslim chaplain of the New York City Police Department, said, "We, Muslims, Americans, stand today with a heavy weight on our shoulders that those who would dare do such dastardly acts claim our faith. They are no believers in God at all....We condemn them and their cowardly acts, and we stand with our country against all that would come against us."
Edward Egan, then the archbishop of New York, said, "Almighty and eternal father, we are gathered here as your people and your children....We need courage to deal with our pain, we need justice to deal with the evil doers who have harmed us so fiercely. We need faith, wisdom and strength of soul for ourselves, each and every one."
Rabbi Marc Gellman, the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, New York, said, "The Talmud and the African tribe, the Maasai tribe, both teach a wisdom for our wounded world. They both taught sticks alone can be broken by a child, but sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. The fears and sorrows of this moment are so heavy, they can break us if we try to bear them alone. But if we are bundled together, if we stick together, we are unbreakable."
Calvin Butts, the noted pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, said -- simply and powerfully -- "Be not afraid. Together we will get through [this], because we are the United States of America."
As an Armenian Christian born in Iran, I am aware of the historical vulnerability of ethnic and religious minorities. Hence, as I watched the service, I found myself thinking that I could not imagine such a peaceful, even loving coming together of different peoples and groups if the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had taken place in the Middle East or Africa, or Eastern Europe, or Asia. In those regions, nationalist and religious fervor would have likely led to atrocities visited upon those who happened to share the faith of the perpetrators of such attacks. Imagine if the attacks had been carried out in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, India, Pakistan, Kenya, or Sudan. We have already seen the kinds of horrendous reprisals that have sometimes followed acts of sectarian violence in those countries and others.
But thank God that is not the path we followed. On September 23, watching the service at Yankee Stadium, I felt that I was bearing witness to a maturing of America. I saw an educated citizenry sharing the common experience of almost unspeakable loss, unbearable pain. I saw intelligent men and women who understood the historical significance of the heartbreaking events they were memorializing, and who did not want those who had attacked us to succeed in dividing our nation or weakening our resolve to go forward, to go on.
I also saw America as a mature political power, with resolute and steady leaders such as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and President George W. Bush, with the entire bipartisan New York delegation and all members of Congress standing behind them. On that day, the entire political leadership of America acted as one. There were no Democrats or Republicans, no Independents or Libertarians. They were all Americans. And as Americans, they transcended their ideological differences in order to honor the victims of our national tragedy.
President Bush, among many others, continued to reflect about the meaning of 9/11, forcefully declaring that "Americans understand we fight not a religion; ours is not a campaign against the Muslim faith. Ours is a campaign against evil." He made those remarks to airline employees at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on September 27, 2001, but this was a concept he repeated many times over, in many venues, in many different ways. In the days following 9/11, President Bush also visited several mosques to reinforce the idea that Muslim Americans were an integral part of American society and that indeed, their faith and support were a critical component of the struggle against terrorism. The president made this clear on September 17, 2001, at the Washington Islam Center mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the United States, when he read this verse from the Koran: "In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule."
It was during this time that I stumbled across a sermon by C. S. Lewis. This was purely coincidence, but a comforting and uplifting one. The sermon is called "Learning in Wartime" and was delivered in the autumn of 1939 when Britain stood alone against the Nazis. Among the most evocative passages in the sermon are these extraordinary words: "I think it is important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would have never begun....[People] propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss poetry while advancing on the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature."
I sent copies of this sermon to my friends and to my colleagues, hoping that it helped them, as it helped me, to regain my feeling of optimism about our nation and our future. That is because indeed, it is in the nature of men and women to look ahead, past the darkest of times, to the brighter days that always follow. All of human history is a play of light and darkness. And through all of human history, we travel together through the longest night into the dawn.
-- Vartan Gregorian