My experience of 11 September 2001, like so many others, begins with a memory of that gorgeous September morning. It was the beginning of my Sophomore year at Smith College in Northampton, MA. After my morning French class, I strolled from Hatfield Hall to the Hellen Hills Hills Chapel, breathing in the cool morning air, marveling at the brilliance of the azure sky. The serenity of my morning was shattered by the news delivered to me by my stunned friends working at the chapel: ”A plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.” At first I thought they were joking, then I thought they were exaggerating the severity of the crash. It wasn’t until I saw the black smoke billowing from the crater left by American Airlines Flight 11 that my mind was able to register what was probably happening. But even then, I just couldn’t have imagined the extent of the violence and loss of human life that day, or in the many years to follow.
The rest of the day was a blur. I remember watching the towers fall to the ground in the company of native New Yorkers, whose absolute disbelief and sadness resonates with me to this day. I remember my friends frantically trying to account for family and friends working in or near the buildings. I remember trying to call my mother, but the phone lines at Smith College were overloaded with calls to and from loved ones, everyone looking for stability in the midst of chaos. I remember the immediate grounding of all air transportation. I remember wondering how I would get home to my family in Colorado. I wept, longing to be with my family during this frightening time. I wept, thinking of all the people who had lost members of their own families that terrible day.
The next day, Government Professor Donald Baumer started our Politics and Public Policy class with a somewhat self-evident statement: “Everything has Changed.” Indeed, many things had or eventually did change. But, from where I stood, some things sadly and unfortunately remained the same. The anti-Muslim rhetoric, discrimination, and violence that ensued was disgustingly predictable. The visceral fear that engulfed the act of traveling reflected our national apprehension about security in general. The subsequent violence of years of war was also not a surprise. War is a national habit, our response in the face of threat, our knee-jerk reaction to hatred and violence. What else could we have expected from national leaders in this instance? Everything had changed, but nothing had changed.
In the days after the attacks, a Christian friend of mine dared to ask a ridiculous question, “What if we were to hang a banner over our shores that reads, ‘WE FORGIVE YOU!’” As a young political scientist, I scoffed at her suggestion, citing the obviously complex questions of national security, protection of innocents, and the threat of terror in allied countries. But, ten years later, I find myself revisiting her suggestion. How would the world have been different if we would have followed a Jesus ethic of resistance? What if we had not gone to war (even if many thoughtful and earnest Christians have defended this course of action in various iterations of just war theory)? What if we would have draped our shores in love and forgiveness? Were these ideas so fantastic that they ought not impact the delicate political equations at play? Or were they just crazy enough to change things, even if only to hold our nation back from the brink of bitterness that has, in so many ways, consumed us? Would our present-day national discourse be any better if our response to this particular trial had not been anger and revenge, but steadfast resistance rooted in charitable love?
These thoughts are all very “airy.” These questions are admittedly counterfactual and rooted in the fairly unsystematic ruminations of a Christian believer and U.S. Citizen who is emotionally raw from weeping all morning in remembrance of the heartbreaking violence perpetrated in her country that day. But in the blur of tears and memories, I find my imagination wandering to places that it could not have gone that day. I want to imagine a world where, truly, “Everything has Changed.” And I wonder how we could change the world if, through God’s unyielding grace, we could just change.