I sat in a train car on Sept. 13, 2001, watching smoke rise from fallen towers. A Connecticut policeman observed the pyre beside me with a blank expression as he traveled to serve beside the exhausted NYPD. He did not complain about working overtime. He didn't express concern about leaving his young daughter or his wife, though he winced as he spoke of them. It was his duty, he said, to stand in solidarity with those who had lost so much.
His response was typical of America's initial reaction to Sept. 11. Paramedics clicked on sirens and sped to the lower quadrant of Manhattan. Civilians lined up to give blood, hopeful there would be survivors to receive it. Massage therapists donated time to relax the feet and hands that dug through hot, caustic debris. Chaplains absorbed the emotional anguish of workers who extracted body parts from ground zero. On college campuses, students who had never spoken consoled on another on the steps of lecture halls. In New York suburbs, neighbors -- whose relationships consisted of a wave when fetching the paper -- knocked on the doors of those who walked home from work, covered in soot but grateful to be alive.
Ground zero cooled in the 10 years since Sept. 11. Smoke faded, then ceased altogether. Builders laid new cornerstones, landscaped new gardens. What did not cool, however, was the language American leaders use to manipulate the public's emotions.
Take the rhetoric of Tea Party debate on Sept. 12 as an example:
Newt Gingrich accused Barack Obama of "frightening the American people."
Michele Bachmann called Gardasil, the vaccine that prevents cervical cancer, "poison" in an interview with CNN after the debate.
Ron Paul stated he would let a young man in a coma die rather than allow the government to provide health insurance to him.
Jon Huntsman called Rick Perry's inability to secure the United States border "treasonous."
What a wonderful example of maturity and compassion these national leaders displayed.
Ironically, Jon Huntsman summarized the tone of the evening when he said about Social Security, "I don't think anything should be off the table except some of the drama that's playing out here on this floor today."
So is "drama" really what the America of Sept. 12, 2011 is all about? Are we as a nation only able to talk in angry, reactive sound bytes? Because that's certainly what last night's debates seemed to imply.
Let's look back again at Sept. 11, 2001. The compassion Americans showed toward others in the days following the al Qaeda attacks demonstrated that we as a country have an immeasurable capacity for empathy, generosity and cooperation. We showed the world the best of ourselves at that time. But in the past decade, our nation slowly replaced compassion with reactivity and retribution.
That ought to make us as concerned as FAA security examining air travelers on the-current-threat-advisory-is-red days.
Why? Because Christians are called to compassion, and though America is not a Christian nation, 75 percent of its citizens identify as such. That's how Jesus lived, after all. In raising Lazarus from the dead, in exorcising demons and healing lepers, in defending the adulterous woman from being stoned and in befriending Mary Magdalene, Jesus repeatedly showed that compassion kills evil. In fact, Jesus took that ideal all the way to his own sufferings on the cross. To the crowd who mocked, jeered and judged him as he died, Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." To the criminals who hung on crosses beside him, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise"
In the past decade, incendiary rhetoric and actions -- not radical compassion of the kind that imitates Jesus -- governed how our entire nation responded to Sept. 11. So it's no surprise that the Republican presidential candidates, all of whom identify as Christian, mirrored that kind of language last night.
Unfortunately, rhetoric like this isn't limited to high-ranking politicians. It seems to have spread to our nation at large, like a cervical cancer that metastasizes because the "poison" Gardasil was not administered.
Indeed, perhaps no single quotation exemplifies this kind of language better than country singer Toby Keith, who sang about the wars following Sept.11: "Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage. This big dog will fight you when you rattle his cage. And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. Cause we'll put a boot in you're a*s, it's the American way."
Toby Keith, by the way, also identifies as a Christian.
While the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11 was a time for the nation and the world to mourn a tremendous tragedy, it was also a time to ask what we have learned from that tragedy, and how we can move forward to create a world in which atrocities like this will never happen again.
And if we are ever going to create a world in which "never again" is a reality instead of a dream, then compassion must be the guiding principle, and it must be at the heart of the way we speak. It is not sufficient to flex compassion once and then let it atrophy, as America has done. Compassion must be exercised every day -- not just for 10 days, but for 10 years and beyond.
Americans showed in the days after Sept. 11 that they can be compassion models not just for each other but also for our global community, though, over the past 10 years, many in our country came to believe that an iron fist and retribution are the only ways to show strength. Republican candidates tried to convince us of that again last night.
Yet, as we remember the events that followed Sept. 11 -- the wars, the invasions, the pervasive feeling of insecurity -- I hope we will remember the power of compassion as well. And I hope that power will be what moves us forward in the decade to come.