More thanks to my daughter than to me, I went to church this year on the morning of 9/11, All Saints Episcopal
on 46th street in Sunnyside, NY.
On the actual day of the attacks, I was nearby, close enough to go outside my office building and stare downtown at the smoke and ruin. I stayed in my office though, and watched the horrifying drama unfold on TV. I know people who lost their lives, and more than one of my living friends by some "coincidence" narrowly escaped ruin. When it comes to the attack on the World Trade Towers
, I'm from down the road. I'm not from New Haven, Connecticut, Midland, Texas, or Caspar, Wyoming. The dead are my neighbors.
Why was it then that with every passing day leading up to the decennial commemoration my interest grew less and less? I could only feel the networks seeking their dollars, the politicians seeking their face time, and the clanging of money changers in the temple? I had no interest in the network programming Sunday morning with all the television feel of a Thanksgiving Day parade. I couldn't feel anything in the fleeting nods in the Sports Sunday half-times. These left me cold, unrelated, weary.
I felt bad though. I wanted to "feel." I did not want to bah humbug something sacred
. By grace, I ended up where I could recover. But something more became clear to me at the same time. Something about what America has become, and what America has lost since this day of horror.
I want to imagine that the land I love
stands a fighting chance to step back from the ledge of disorder and breakdown tearing at the nation, society, and culture (in all major areas including in its rudderless foreign policy). I believe America is the most wonderful experiment ever, that until recent years has been a genuine beacon of light and hope for many. I feel that other global economic titans are not viable competitors for what America can represent when it stays humbly and honorably on its game. One of my favorite New York lines is one told me as I shopped for groceries among Greeks and Turks, among Jews and Arabs. One said to me, "when we come here, we can't remember why we were fighting back home." I cannot think of another country that causes this to happen in people. But as I follow news and commentary now, even with great passion -- bar the occasional gem of insight and commentary -- no light seems to shine.
Many note the decline of virtue
in the public square. America has been crippled by the loss of basic social mortar, such as honesty, trust, patience, fair-play, respect. Without these we cannot hope for a sound economy, for a public minded political class, for integrity in media, social responsibility
in sports and entertainment, and for energetic civic participation in the body politic. But where did these go? How were these lost?
These were lost through the erosion of necessary "mediating institutions" that stand between the individual, (and more precisely between the family) and "the state," (by which I mean the "whole culture," "national identity," "national consciousness," "America"). The fact is that this "one big thing" is not close to me. "The president," the banks, "Google
," lack access to me. These cannot instill, invoke, nor require of me decency. Such a view of "public society" is too remote, too amorphous, too far away. "It doesn't know me."
I realized this as my 9/11 was being given back to me in a small church in Queens. Rather than gazing passively at a doe-eyed Brian Williams
buzzing out at me through the megapixels trying to make me "feel," it was the small group of neighbors in the pews around me who revived my dying self. This is a "public" that can touch me. These are the "next bigger thing" after family. They are very old, very young. Some are young couples, local teachers, or shop owners. We tried with all our hearts to honor the fallen. We recited aloud,
When we remember the stockbrokers, office workers, maintenance workers, bystanders, window-washers, and all the others who worked together so valiantly to help each other, we can say together,
We remember great courage.
When we recall the firefighters who rushed upstairs as most everyone was racing out, we can say together,
We remember selfless service
When we recall the police officers who stood to protect and defend the people and performed their duties until the towers came crashing down on top of them, we can say together
We remember selfless sacrifice for the safety of others
All standing, we continued in chorus though this litany of sixteen of these moving, and somber declarations,
In our sadness, horror and shock we acknowledge that our fears turned murderous and we have sought revenge, sometimes even against the innocent
We confess and regret our own anger and recognize its dangers to our spirits, our health, our community, and others
This, not gazing passively at the TV, watching ambitious politicians read speeches written by hacks and handlers, and rushing off the fridge for snacks while I "commemorate." Instead our commemoration was with the voices of my neighbors in my ears, the voices of real husbands and wives, and moms and dads of policemen and firefighters. After the litany of remembrance all on our knees we publicly "confessed" "We have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and what we have left undone... we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves ... "
Where anymore do we find these reminders in daily life? Who hears me say "in public" I wish I were better? Who supports our nobility, our moral striving, our vision, our decency? Universities and business schools? Facebook
, or YouTube
? The President? Congress? Watching Thursday Night Football
? No. These do not.
America needs "public" life that is close enough to feel. We need "mediating structures" to get me from here to there. I need the way to get from from my passions, to my family to "society," to "my nation." "Public" life must have real voices in my ears, and real faces to behold with tears and courage. There must be steps to travel between me and the president, between me and the banks, between me and our foreign policy. The "public" must be one I see often, with people I know, and people who know me. The elderly aren't AARP
, they are Lilliana who's been in the parish for 70 years. Children aren't national reading scores
, they are Josh who proudly sings me "his ABC's" in the "coffee hour" today, and is himself off to police academy "before you know it." This is the beginning of public life. This first step is needed if we are to have even a small chance to recover the health of our nation.
If America cannot re-locate this "mediating" step that somehow works effectively to recreate genuine, public virtue in its citizens, its era is past.