I didn’t expect to write about 9/11. But I found I had no choice.

As an academic trained to be critical (in the best and worst meaning of that term), I expected that the anniversary would bring media overkill, excessive sentimentality, and mindless jingoism. Media saturation and sensationalism were indeed in overdrive, along with some predictably foolish commentary. Yet the overall national tone was respectful and dignified. And we were called to contemplation (a core value of Alvernia) about the meaning of heroic service and peacemaking (two other of our core values).

Those of us who did not lose a loved one on 9/11 or who have been touched only indirectly by those events and the resulting casualties from decade-long wars in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan can only imagine the ongoing grief, anger, and loss suffered by the victims’ (and soldiers’) families and friends. Yet we can still be touched deeply and inspired, as ten years ago, by stories of astonishing humanity.   

The tale of Welles Crowther, the “Man in the Red Bandanna,” a 24-year old graduate of my alma mater, Boston College, made a deep impression on me. An economics major, lacrosse player, and member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Welles organized rescue efforts on the upper floors of the South Tower. Appearing in the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor, where the airplane had hit, he directed dazed victims to the one open stairway and made successful trips with injured survivors — most of whom were likely strangers to him — all the way to the main floor lobby. He was discovered there, with members of the FDNY, under the rubble of the tower, preparing for still another trip up the tower to rescue others. Two survivors who later identified him from a picture sent by his mother have talked about how knowing his identity has been a source of healing and of hope.   

Heroism of a more familiar kind was celebrated a few days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11 when a young marine sergeant, Dakota Meyer, became the first living soldier from the current wars to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Listening to his conscience and disobeying the orders of superiors not on the scene, Meyer made repeated trips under heavy fire to rescue (or recover the bodies of) Afghan as well as American comrades. As he accepted his award at the White House, memorial services were held at his request for four comrades who did not survive the firefight.  

Amidst these and other inspiring stories, it is surprising how little commentary has probed the costs of the two wars begun in response to 9/11, both producing extensive civilian as well as military casualties and having significant economic impact.  Bi-partisanship is virtually invisible in Washington . . . except for the almost universally shared silence about the “costs” of these wars.   

In contrast, Alvernia’s Founders Day speaker, Marie Dennis, the co-president of Pax Christi, the Catholic international peace organization recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and the recipient of a distinguished peace award previously bestowed on Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa, challenged prevailing thinking.  In her address, “’Love Your Enemies’: The Lessons of 9/11,” she decried the horror of 9/11, shared her anger at the loss of a dear cousin, and affirmed the need for a strong response. But she noted that the Church’s “just war theory,” once widely cited as justification for military action, was now almost impossible to apply to global conflicts. She questioned the efficacy (and the morality) of the response to 9/11. And as a veteran of peacekeeping and human rights trips to dangerous conflicts in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, she suggested that genuine peacemaking, based on countercultural gospel values, and requiring economic justice and respectful dialogue, is the world’s best hope.

Neither Dennis nor the three faculty panelists --Professors Kevin Donnelly, Janae Scholtz, and Donna Yarri--who offered the diverse perspectives of historian, philosopher, and theologian at a campus event suggested there were easy answers. Donnelly emphasized it was far too soon for any national consensus on the deeper “meaning” of 9/11.  Sholtz, like Dennis, recalling the hopeful unity and outpouring of support for the United States in the early days after 9/11, decried the increasing polarization and disrespectful dialogue now in ascendancy. And Yarri, like Dennis, besides doubting a major conflict could any longer meet the test of the “just war’ theory, noted that the widespread destruction unleashed in the last decade posed troubling questions that most Americans are hesitant to face. The final panelist, State Senator Judy Schwank, encouraged students (and all of us) to use the 9/11 anniversary as an opportunity for personal and national reflection. 

Such reflection is troubling and challenging, to be sure, but necessary. And we have the integrity and moral courage of Welles Crowther, Dakota Meyer, and Marie Dennis to inspire us.

Flynn Files