Duty’s many forms on 9/11 20th



9/11 Memorial lights up NYC Skyline

Fr. Jerome Day, O.S.B., Faculty Advisor

There are few classes that I’ve taught over the years that do not include a coffee. Whether it’s in a paper cup, a ceramic mug or a stainless steel travel container, the java is almost always with me. Java Joe takes on real meaning when I have an early class. So it was 20 years ago, when I headed over to the coffee shop for my shot of caffeine on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

As I came through the doors, I was nearly rolled over by one of our confreres, Bro. Malachy R. McCarthy, O.S.B., the prior at the time, who boomed out as he left the building that planes had plowed into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Like many Americans, I initially heard the news as a strange accident, that somehow pilots flying in heavy cloud cover had become disoriented and struck the center. In fact, however, the television screens in the coffee shop were showing film of one of the planes headed straight for one of the towers. It was no Cessna, but rather a large commercial airliner.

As I recall getting that first bit of news of what we would all come to call “9/11,” I remember the strange phenomenon of watching the screens in slow motion with an otherworldly silence. All around me students, faculty and staff were in high volume, but the screens were mesmerizing, their images inconceivable. How could two such planes have hit the trade center by accident? There was no cloud cover in New York. Brilliant blue skies with only a few puffy clouds covered New England and New York. What would such an accident mean for the people inside?

Within moments, however, the cause of the fireball and billowing smoke, if nothing else, became clear. Broadcasters had switched from the language of “accident” to “attack.”

Several of my students came up to me wanting to know if we would have class. Little did I realize that already some people had information that this tragedy in New York also involved us; two of the crashed airliners had left Logan in Boston. We would discover that 9/11 would touch Saint Anselm alumni and people in Goffstown, Manchester and Bedford. It would eventually engulf the U.S. and much of the world.

“Of course, we’ll have class today,” I told the students. “On this day, perhaps more than any other day, it’s our duty to have class.” I simply meant that a journalism class would naturally want to be on top of the story as best we could. “But don’t go to our classroom, go to the Weiler Computer Center. We’ll follow the story there.” Then, I realized I’d have to scramble to make sure we could go to Weiler and not intrude on someone else’s activity.

Ironically, that line about “duty” would become a 9/11 byword for years. We discovered that one of the most important reactions in the face of terror and disruption is to maintain order and routine, albeit with necessary safeguards and precautions. Without question, so many firefighters, police officers, EMTs and other first responders fulfilled the demands of duty on 9/11 and in the days that followed. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. Within days, young men and women were responding to military service to defend the nation – and so many have paid the high costs of duty. And yet duty also requires that we ask difficult questions, see connections, understand consequences, challenge policies, and sometimes even express dissent. That duty often falls to the press, whose questions and concerns are spoken for the benefit of readers, viewers and listeners – the American people, who hold the First Amendment precious and vital.

Word of our class venue change apparently spread – even when cell phones were not ubiquitous on campus – and the students were each at a computer terminal. We began class with a prayer for the victims and for the nation. Then, with the help of Weiler staff, we were able to identify, access and follow the story of the al Qaeda attack on the U.S., one that cost nearly 3,000 lives. Students looked at what was known, who was the source, how the language indicated sympathy or hostility, what local connections were foregrounded, how individual stories meshed with the overall account of the attack, what government officials said, how the U.S. was responding on the ground in New York, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania, reaction abroad and what to expect in the days to come. 

I remember students examined the web sites, most of them changing every few minutes, of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Times of London, Le Monde in Paris, The Irish Times, The Montreal Gazette, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, The Jerusalem Post, Stars and Stripes (the paper for those serving in the U.S. military), as well as some English-language news web sites from the Middle East.

How proud I was of these aspiring journalists and would-be news sleuths. They approached the tasks at hand, through their own tears and rising fears about their future, with that same sense of duty. No, our work was not bound for the front pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post or the lead item on the evening radio and television broadcasts, but it was nonetheless a real effort to seek the truth and, in amid these horrific circumstances, rebuild the common good. Any published work from our class was destined for this paper, The Saint Anselm Crier.

Like the people in the teeth of 9/11, we did not know whether this was the beginning of a war of terror, a new Pearl Harbor or something even worse. Sometimes, when all is chaos and confusion, the noblest thing, the bravest thing is simply … duty. That sense of duty, and often going beyond its call, soon became the inspiration for a great many young journalists, people like my old friend Danny Pearl, whom I was privileged to coach as his first professional editor, and Jim Foley, from Rochester, NH, whom I wish I had known. Both young men had long records of telling the stories of the underdog, the marginalized, the oppressed, stories from cultures where we American are quick to make assumptions or dismiss in our prejudices. Both were passionate about human rights. And both were murdered. Danny, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was killed by al Qaeda in 2002, and Jim, a correspondent connected to Global Post in Boston, slain by ISIS in 2014.

Claims that all journalists are the “enemy of the people,” regardless of their source, anger me. Our distress over extremism, propaganda and disinformation, masquerading as journalism, right or left, should not blind us to the many journalists who still risk their lives to locate their duty in pursing the truth and doing so with justice. Many at Saint Anselm saw the ironically appropriate connection between 9/11 and the opening of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics only a few days earlier, on an equally beautiful late summer day. The institute’s purpose includes efforts to help us understand how our politics can play a role in a world of justice and peace. The events of 9/11 make clear how implementing such a goal is itself now an essential duty at home and abroad.  

Very few, if any, of us at Saint Anselm got through the day with dry eyes. Later in the day, we gathered at the abbey church with Father Jonathan P. DeFelice, O.S.B., president of the college, leading the community in prayer and the Eucharist, uniting us in the Crucified Jesus, the Risen Christ. It was one of the most moving sights I’ve experienced at Saint Anselm. Later still, candles would flicker and prayers, in various languages and diverse traditions, would fill the college’s veteran’s war memorial, as they have in the years that followed. May the light of those candles and murmur of those prayers steel our resolve to do our duty in Christ.

Fr. Jerome, O.S.B., teaches in the Department of English and is faculty adviser to The Saint Anselm Crier.