The Towers: Reflection on September 11


Cal Poly University San Luis Obispo

September 24 2001

These images flash through my mind in alternation with images of September 11. They come from the Tarot, a deck of cards used for meditation and fortune-telling throughout the world. The earliest decks in existence date to the fourteenth century, and the Tarot’s origin is variously attributed to ancient Egyptians, Indians and Chinese. The captions are from one traditional interpretation of their meanings.

What has happened is so shocking, so disruptive of our sense of reality before September 11, that even sceptics are prompted to think of the attack in terms of the timeless–the apocalyptic, the archetypal, the symbolic, the religious, the occult.

Such mythologizing can be dangerous. The perpetrators themselves invoke the myth of America as the Great Satan to justify their attack, and our homegrown fanatics interpreted it as God’s righteous judgment on the ACLU, homosexuals and liberals. In the first flush of reaction, even our national leaders identified themselves with Christian Crusaders extracting Infinite Justice from infidels, but thankfully they have retreated from that route.

I look for other meanings in this cosmic spectacle.

At a time of unparalleled economic expansion, the center of world trade, housed in New York’s tallest buildings, comes tumbling down, followed by the Dow-Jones index.

At a time of unparalleled military dominance, the center of American armed forces, housed in the largest building in the world, a Pentagon shape that stands for war itself, is set aflame.

With these symbols of American wealth and power demolished or harmed, it makes sense for many people to identify themselves with the less grandiose symbol of the stars and stripes, the red, white and blue.

I believe rallying around the flag is a good thing now. It can show the enemies of this country our unity and strength under attack. It can motivate the effort to seek them out and bring them to justice, and it can warrant the sacrifice of convenience, money and freedom required for better “homeland security.”

But while rebuilding shaken confidence in our defense and our economy is vital, we also need to pay more attention to the symbolism of the attacks as a challenge to America’s conscience. As Michael Lerner has put it:

We may tell ourselves that the current violence has “nothing to do” with the way that we’ve learned to close our ears when told that one out of every three people on this planet does not have enough food, and that one billion are literally starving. We may reassure ourselves that the hoarding of the world’s resources by the richest society in world history, and our frantic attempts to accelerate globalization with its attendant inequalities of wealth, has nothing to do with the resentment that others feel toward us… If the U.S. turns its back on global agreements to preserve the environment, unilaterally cancels its treaties to not build a missile defense, accelerates the processes by which a global economy has made some people in the third world richer but many poorer, shows that it cares nothing for the fate of refugees who have been homeless for decades, and otherwise turns its back on ethical norms, it becomes far easier for the haters and the fundamentalists to recruit people who are willing to kill themselves in strikes against what they perceive to be an evil American empire represented by the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.”

Another timeless image popped into my mind on September 11: that of the Wheel of Fortune, on which heroes are bound to rise and then fall. This is a traditional icon for Tragedy–the woeful spectacle known in the middle ages as De Casibus–the downfall of the great.



The terrorist attack deepens my sense of what Tragedy is all about.

First of all it is the revelation of suffering–suffering that shatters the lives of six thousand victims and their families, suffering that furrows the brows of our elected leaders assembled at the capitol, suffering that permeates the daily comings and goings of the three million American Muslims, suffering that invades the daydreams and nightmares of us all with fears of chemical, biological and nuclear warfare, suffering that shadows the excitement of a new school year in a new century of this University’s history, suffering that brings us together at this occasion.

Then there is the tragedy of malicious, devious, cruelty–always present somewhere, but now manifest in our midst–cruelty forcing us to question with no answer like Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”

And there is the tragedy of hybris–the Greek dramatist’s word for pride, arrogance, delusions of power in a situation where one has none, excessive self-confidence, especially toward the gods.

And there is the tragedy of unfairness–those stockbrokers, bankers, currency speculators, soldiers, pilots and passengers, in Shakespeare’s words, “more sinned against than sinning.”

And finally there is the tragedy of bad things getting worse, of one disaster leading to greater ones–whether it be more terrorist acts that this one encourages, or a spiralling exchange of revenge, or a losing military strategy, or an economic depression. “The worst is not,” says another character in that play, “So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.'”

And yet tragedy also, like a funeral, is a kind of celebration, an occasion for creating heroes and martyrs, for understanding and memorializing, for purging not only pity and fear, but folly and self-indulgence. “The Helmsman lays it down” says the chorus in a play by Aeschylus, the first Greek tragedian, “the helmsman lays it down as law/ that we must suffer/suffer into truth.” In that respect the image of the Tower can have a positive outcome, a meaning that inspires: “When this happens we must react with hope, letting go of our fears. The highest truths can now be realised.”

I find proof of this movement in our communal consciousness every morning with my coffee. It used to take five minutes to go through the newspaper because there was so little truth, so much trivia and trash. Since September 11, it takes almost an hour to read what’s in front of me, and though it brings sadness and anxiety, it provides sustenance–factual information about current events and their backgrounds, varied and changing editorial opinions, an outpouring of letters from my fellow citizens that lets me know how deeply we feel, how widely we disagree and how profoundly we depend upon one another.

I’ll conclude by quoting someone named Beverly Engel, who wrote one of those letters that appeared in last Friday’s Tribune:

“Last week our heroes weren’t movie stars or football players, they were firefighters and cops and healthcare workers

Last week MTV didn’t spew out songs about hate or violence or bitches and “hos.” They played songs about love and loss, warned against hate crimes and ran the emails of mourning kids.

Last week we didn’t frequent strip joints or pornographic movies, we went to churches and synagogues and mosques

Last week we didn’t spill our blood with gang warfare or drive-by shootings, we donated our blood to the Red Cross.

Last week we didn’t argue or scream at our families, we held our loved ones close and felt grateful they were alive.

Last week we didn’t focus on how much money we were going to make, we thought about how much money we could donate.

Last week we didn’t rush around as much, we took the time to feel and to grieve and to comfort one another

They say that the events of Tuesday, September 11 2001 changed everything.

In some ways I hope they’re right.”


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