Zachary Jay Joachim's 9-11 Commemoration Speech
Zachary Jay Joachim
Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences - 2012
I was in sixth grade, math class, when I heard fast footsteps down the hallway and an urgent request that a television be brought to the principal's office. I was driven home early that day, like many school kids across the nation, and soon sat attentively by the television with my family, where we would seemingly remain for the next two weeks. A still, azure sky, incredulous cries, the plane, the towers, and a burst of orange flame—surreal images, on repeat, as the billow of black smoke lay still over our nation's head, and America became the world again. My memories of that day are still strong, but fortunately unremarkable; though I lived but an hour from New York, none of my friends or family had traumatic experiences or lost loved ones that day. So, I will not indulge you with adramatic personal story—I do not have one. Rather, what I will try to tell is simply what I have observed, and how I now value and understand the event we commemorate today.
What began on September 11 is most of all, I think, a narrative— one whose stark and indelible opening line continues to echo and recapitulate itself through our nation's recent history, and in turn, the world's. Islamic militants sent a message to America that day: that the West was a threat to their way of life, and an abomination to their God. A war would be waged. So goes what we have collectively come to misunderstand as Muslim 'jihad'. But we ought to recall with humility that many of us in America wished to send that very same message back: that the monolith of Islam was a threat to our way of life, our Christian worship, our patriotism. And so goes what we have collectively come to support, challenge, and struggle to reconcile with: the 'War on Terror'.
When broadened, we may recognize the many turns in this dialectic: from Iraq to London; Iran to Florida; Madrid to Oslo; from French fries to freedom fries and back again. And of course, when narrowed, the many wrinkles in between: the hate-crimes, the death-threats, the celebrations in the streets, the missions accomplished and left undone, the feelings of injustice and outrage. Violence for the sake of right, sitting pretty on the high ground, yet somehow, inexplicably, still with our backs to the wall, trembling. It seems that, in the end, each has been a mirror of the same face — of fear, and in fear equally.
Or so the story goes. When I say that 9/11 opened up a narrative, I do not chiefly mean the one of fear,violence, pain, and injustice I have just described. Though that is surely what weighs heavy on our hearts today— especially those who have lost in these ten years since— this is the narrative of governments and militants who in everyday life we know nothing about. It is what we are told to explain why those we have known, and those we haven't, are still dead. And so, I will say bluntly, let it remain with them. The narrative I wish to bring to your attention today is of a different kind, one often ignored, if not misdirected, by our national rhetoric. It is the ongoing story to which, for whatever my own proclivities, I have paid closest attention—that being, the story of religious people in America. Of course, we were all disturbed by the events of that day, we all struggled withwhat was to follow, and—just as we are today— we all came together. But inparticular, we came together across cultural and religious lines. People volunteered to keep watch over mosques for violence and vandalism, sent flowers and cards, fixed signs and made banners, and, all in all, extended their friendship and hospitality to and solidarity with the Muslims in their communities. This phenomenon has been well-documented, though seldom told. As it happens, such actions have taken more the form of small, reactive gestures from individuals on a grass-roots level than a large and unified voice. In aggregate, though, they are not insignificant. Stranger still, this collaboration has occurred most readily in areas of greater cultural and religious plurality—the very places one would expect tensions to be highest. The explanation for this phenomenon, however, is rather simple. It is easy to conflate strangers with villains when all we have of each are mere images. We see appearances and customs, but no more, and so we color what we see in two-dimensions with the anger and insecurity we are told to have, in an attempt to make whole what we do not understand. This, again, is easy to do, to which many have fallen prey. What is much harder, though, is to make villains of our co-workers, class-mates, clients, business-owners, friends, and neighbors, to whom we are civically tied. As such, we know these people; they are whole to us as people. We know them not as alien to ourselves, but as alien to the very images of terror we imbibe through the politics of media. Moreover—and this is crucial— contrary to popular belief, we deepen this sense of kinship, beyond the civic level, when we authentically live out our religious convictions. This is at the heart of what is changing the once disparate gestures of support into a growing and increasingly univocal interfaith movement. Their message is clear: that we are better together, united around shared values and commitments both to our world and to each other.
This is, I think, the better story. And it's a completely true story. The literature on interfaith encounter,cooperation, and understanding has more than doubled in the last ten years, but more than that, we as people wish more than ever to understand what we have for so long misunderstood—or, more precisely, whom we have misunderstood, and so often wronged. We want to know them and dogood by them, but also do good with them. That's my intuition, anyway.
Thus, the story I present is as rich as it is personal— the unsung stories of lives that have been touched, initiatives that have been started, bonds that have been made. This narrative of religious people coming together is most relevant to us, the most religiously diverse nation on earth, and hits us concretely. It does not threaten to abstract the other, for better or worse, but instead tells us that we are on our way to knowing more specifically those to whom we are bound. This is not a defense of religion over non-religion, but rather an expression of praise for the good work that has been done in the name of religion, and in the name of God. Let it continue, for history's sake. This is the story we ought to tell, or at least tell more often than the story of fear and violence. And so, to return to our remembrance today, what began on a clear September morning a decade ago was a narrative, indeed, but an open one;one that continues to be forged by the stories we share, the people we meet,the values we uphold, and nation we aim to become.