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Remembering 9/11: Ten Years Later

Thomas Massaro, SJ, reflects on what was lost and gained on 9/11

09/08/11
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Thomas Massaro, SJ, is a professor in the School of Theology and Ministry and a frequent researcher and commentator on Catholic social issues.  

The events of 9/11 touched my life in a particularly strong way, since I grew up in Queens and attended Regis High School in Manhattan. That school, and many other Jesuit-run high schools and colleges in the New York area, lost many alumni to the terrorist attacks. One of my friends from the high school debate team, Matt Leonard, worked on the upper floors of the World Trade Center and was killed that day. One of my sisters lived just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. It was by sheer luck that she was out of town with her husband and two infant children on that fateful day. She never slept another night in their apartment, instead choosing to move back to Queens as soon as she could re-enter her former home to pack up her belongings.  

I vividly recall much social commentary at the time claiming that the United States after 9/11 was experiencing the “end of irony” and a new turn for the more serious and sober. But the new era appears to have been distressingly short-lived. Within a year or two, we as a society appear to have settled back into the familiar pattern of crass consumerism, celebrity obsession and excessively materialistic behavior that we displayed before 9/11.   

As a Catholic social ethicist, and simply as a Christian, I found much encouragement in the few weeks or months in late 2001 when people went out of their way to be polite and display more human kindness and empathy. In the wake of the tragedy and massive loss of life, we were more attentive to the needs of the grieving and more aware of the quiet suffering of just about anyone. Drivers actually let you merge in front of them on highway on-ramps! I even wrote an article for America speculating that our national commitment to anti-poverty programs might experience a boost in the wake of these tragedies and the attendant uptick in empathy with the less fortunate. Unfortunately, the “there but for the grace of God go I” sentiment was short-lived, and our political and economic arrangements display, if anything, less compassion than before. Not just irony, but competitiveness, vanity and even callousness have returned.  

9/11 Reflections
The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life has begun a “9/11 Reflections” project that includes a website where the Boston College community may post reminiscences, thoughts and feelings about 9/11 and the decade since then. The center asked selected members of the community to write 150-words-or-less responses to the question, “What have you learned since 9/11?” and posted these this week on the website. Current and former administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni and guests of the University are now invited to contribute to the site.

I suspect that the most lasting legacy of 9/11 in US consciousness will involve, not something about airport security measures or terror threat levels that we hear about every day, but rather our deeper reflections on the nature of evil, disagreement, and the relationship between means and ends.  Disagreements will always persist in human history. It is not surprising that the United States way of life offends the sensibilities of some people from certain cultural background somewhere in the world. Our collective approach to gender relations, personal freedoms and social life in general, not to mention our nation’s support for Israel and Middle East policy, is bound to invite opposition from some elements in the Arab world.   

But, as we all know now, a certain branch of radical Islam chose to react with violent fury and deadly force to this disagreement, eschewing the way of dialogue and reasoned interaction. Al Qaeda chose the way of unchecked violence, lashing out at its perceived enemy and targeting innocent civilians in a gruesome attack. 9/11 stands as a horrific example of the folly of overzealous pursuit of (supposedly) religiously inspired goals, even though the message of authentic Islam is about peace and devotion to a benevolent God.   

If any good can come from these horrors, it may be the reminder that morally serious people will insist on proportionate approaches to the ends they choose and the means they adopt toward those ends. The way of violence, certainly violence against civilians, must be rejected. Thousands of us were the victims of unjustified violence on that fateful day 10 years ago; we must never be the perpetuators of similar deadly means.

Read the series from the beginning here.