Less than two years before Sept. 11, 2001, I felt like my world had fallen apart.
My father, who I trusted and loved as a daughter does to a good father, died suddenly of a heart attack. As the eldest, already working at National Review magazine in my hometown of New York, I had fallen into provider mode, wanting to help my Catholic school principal mother with the seemingly impossible task of putting two children through college alone.
Then one summery Tuesday morning, my colleague Jonah Goldberg called while on a road trip on the other side of the country and told me to look out the window. Normally, you could see one of the towers of the World Trade Center from our Lexington Avenue offices. Now it was smoke.
Tuned into a small portable TV that got only the basic channels, I would watch the second tower fall. The sense that the world was falling apart was palatable. We were under attack.
We heard about the Pentagon. We heard rumors about the State Department and maybe even the White House. News came of a downed plane in Pennsylvania. Immediately, I assumed they must have been attacking the University of Scranton, as my sister was there.
Everyone was scrambling to figure out what to say — mercifully, we were not into the Twitter or even blog era yet — but moreso to make sure family and friends were safe and we commentators kept clear what we did and didn’t know. We were in a war zone. When would this stop? Who is this? Who hates us this much to murder unknown innocents just for being Americans? And right here in our city. This is what movies were made of and fallout shelters were made for. But we never pictured it quite like this.
At National Review, it was sometime late into the morning that we learned that our friend Barbara Olson died in the Pennsylvania plane. She was one of the passengers who tried to do something to thwart the terrorists’ plan. I had just recently talked with her, and was going to interview her about an upcoming book. Had I known it was the last time, we would have spoken about much more important things.
When I finally left the office for a walk later that evening, everyone appeared numb. We had an armory near us that was going to be one of the gathering places for those looking for signs of the missing from the World Trade Center. Votive candles lined the streets. Missing person posters began to fill space on lampposts with photos and expressions of love.
At work, we put out the magazine using one computer that was hooked up by a long-distance call to the Internet via a small business’ network, because dial-up modem lines in Manhattan weren’t working. (AOL Instant Messenger was the most reliable way to communicate, even if only on that one computer.)
I was living off the island of Manhattan, and so was unable to return home for a few days. I don’t remember how many nights I slept in the office. I think I may have found a hotel room for the second or third night. Some of it is a blur.
What is less blurry are the clear memories of church doors around the city being opened and people flowing in and out. Watch the video of the prayer service that week at the National Cathedral, and you will see a nation calling out to God for help, for hope, for meaning. We were united.
On the Friday after the Tuesday attack, when President George W. Bush came to New York and had that iconic moment with the firefighters and the bullhorn, I stood on 42nd Street, waiting with everyone else wanting to cross over to Grand Central, as the president’s motorcade came through. People cheered. Let me emphasize: New Yorkers cheered a Republican president. We had the sense that there was something so much more important than political affiliation or politics itself.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic, I fumed when people would compare what was happening to 9/11. Sure, I could understand that it was the last major moment that rocked our world in the most uncertain and terrifying ways.
But in New York on Sept. 11, I saw people flock to God.
You didn’t have to be religious to see it. On display at the memorial at Ground Zero are the holy cards people left behind in their desks, and the signs and remembrances of Masses that would happen daily at the rescue and recovery debris in the days after. People could be seen praying together on the streets — they wanted and knew they needed God. Priests were serving people in their hour of greatest need — one, Franciscan fire department chaplain Father Mychal Judge, died ministering to people to the very end.
Twenty years later, when faced with the next national emergency — the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic — we closed churches and other places of worship and introduced a phrase from hell: “social distancing.”
That’s not to knock the prudent measures that were taken by religious leaders and government authorities to keep people safe in a moment of alarm and nearly total uncertainty. But in 20 years, our newfound hyper-connectivity had done something to dehumanize us. I don’t know if people can come together like they did for a time then — I don’t even know if people know how.
The message that rang clear to me in January 2000, when my dad died; for New York, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, and the rest of the U.S. in September 2001; and for the world facing the continuing COVID-19 pandemic today is the same: We are not made for this world. We know neither the day nor the hour. Evil remains, but the victory is won thanks to the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Twenty years ago, we sought assurance, help, and consolation from God. Twenty years later, we collectively declared him non-essential. The virtual simply does not cut it — 20 years ago, we were all but cut off from it in my city, and so we were forced into an incarnational reality, especially if we were nowhere near cable news.
Almost 20 years later, we missed the Incarnation, locked out of the Mass and the sacraments. When we miss the Incarnation, nothing makes sense and every kind of false god of worldly security or impossible guarantees about assurance of good health will tempt us into letting our all-too-human fears make us, practically speaking, non-believers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve had friends die of leukemia and two sudden heart attacks. We need God. When we get comfortable in quasi-“normal,” it’s worth considering whether we’ve learned anything about what’s really important: loving one another and being ready to meet God when he calls us home.