Remembering 9-11, and its two kinds of fear

One reaction was life-giving and community-making. The other, which replaced that first fear, was suspicious and divisive.

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The ruins of the World Trade Center

One reaction was life-giving and community-making. The other, which replaced that first fear, was suspicious and divisive.

As we join with others this week in remembering that terrible day ten years ago and in reflecting on the years since, it occurs to me that there are two kinds of fear.

One kind of fear shatters illusions of control and leaves us frightfully, terribly open. We have no answers, only questions.  The other kind of fear leads us to steel our selves against the world at its worst. We try desperately to recover our lost sense of control. We have  answers but little or no room for questions.

In large measure the story of 9/11 and what followed is a story of these two fears.

As I think back to that bright blue-sky day in 2001, the first kind of fear — the one that tears us open and leaves us terribly vulnerable — came first. The second kind — our efforts to make ourselves secure in the face of all that threatens and frightens — would, in time, eclipse the first.

For a moment I want to recall and ponder the first days and that first response. For as terrible and as evil as the attacks of 9/11 were, there was something powerful, even life-giving, in those first days and weeks. People poured into churches and synagogues. Some gatherings were spontaneous, unplanned, without script or customary printed order. As days passed subsequent services were more planful, prayers less stammered and torn.

On that first Sunday following 9/11 every church was full of people who were empty. We had no answers. Only horror, grief, and questions. What has happened? Why? What does it mean? How could this happen? Why do they hate us? Where’s God? What will happen now? What are we to think? What are we to do?

And there was in our terrible emptiness and vulnerability an openness that was somehow holy. For once, the ancient words of Scripture seemed neither distant nor veiled but immediate and transparent. Hymns and prayers ground smooth by familiarity were newly strong and resonant.

And people turned to one another. On streets and buses, in offices and coffee shops, we spoke to each other. We talked to complete strangers as if we were fellow pilgrims on a strange, common journey. People sought the company of others whether at Seattle Center, in lecture halls or in places of worship. Parents held their children and whispered that most amazing thing parents say, “It’s going to be all right.”

In those first days, we felt the full fragility of our lives. That’s a hard thing to feel, but not always a bad thing to feel.

In time, the second fear mostly replaced the first. Security systems were hastily installed as airports cautiously re-opened. We learned to be suspicious of unattended baggage and unknown people. We practiced a new language of red, orange, and yellow alerts, of TSA and Homeland Security. Slogans appeared, “If you see something, say something.” More and different types of security were added in airports and we took off our shoes because we were on unholy ground. Boats armed with mounted machine guns bounced beside our ferries in Puget Sound.

If such precautions were necessary, and at least some were, they came at a cost. A more fearful, more suspicious, and a more anxious America.

Further signs of the ascendency of the second fear: leaders sorted the chaos into “for us” and “against us.” Preachers of a particular stripe had answers. It was punishment for sin, the sins of those people. And the military mobilized for war amid threats of “shock and awe” to be visited upon the enemy. The second fear replaced and eclipsed the first.

But something had been lost as this happened, as the first fear gave way to the second. Is “community” too weak a word for what we lost? “Vulnerability?” “Humanity?”

As the second fear tightened its grip in the years after 9/11, the gap between the rich and the rest widened to a gulf. In 2008, the Recession came, further eroding our sense of shared security and trust. The current politics of anger and polarization are the politics of a deeply fearful people.

Even so, the first fear had opened, for a time, a terrible and a holy place within us. That’s what I remember most.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.