New Yorkers wonder if US heard spiritual ‘wake-up call’ of 9/11

By Benjamin Mann

New York City, N.Y., Sep 4, 2011 / 06:42 pm (CNA).- When Robert Harding saw the World Trade Center collapse four blocks from his Manhattan loft on September 11, 2001, he felt God calling people of every nation, race, language, and religion to repentance.

Sept 13, 2001: Fire fighters continue to battle smouldering fires and clean up wreckage at the WTC. Photo by Andrea Booher-FEMA News Photo

“When I saw the Towers come down, I didn’t think ‘God is punishing me’ – but I did feel that it was a spiritual event. I literally felt the presence of a tremendous spiritual power. It was almost like a wake-up call, to me: ‘Look at what you’re doing, humanity. Take stock of yourselves. This is where you are, so wake up.’”

But many Americans who hoped for a new era of national purpose and unity after 9/11 find themselves disappointed. Harding, an internationally exhibited artist and lifelong Catholic who grew up during the Second World War, now thinks America might have missed the worldwide “wake-up call.”

Harding serves an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, one block from what’s now known as Ground Zero. He and his young son were at home in his loft near the Twin Towers on the morning of the attacks, while his wife had traveled uptown for the day.

Startled by a “loud banging” noise, he walked out onto his fire escape.

“It was quiet. Not much traffic, suddenly,” he told CNA on September 1. “In the distance, about three or four blocks away, I could see paper – it looked like confetti – falling out of the sky.” He didn’t know that a plane had just crashed into the North Tower of the landmark near his loft.

A group of Harding’s neighbors, mostly fellow artists, started gathering outside. “As we looked south, we could see the North Tower had a big hole in it, and smoke was coming out.”

“Some guy came running up from the west, and said: ‘A plane hit the tower! I saw a plane hit the building!’”

Around nine o’clock, Harding – still holding his two-year-old boy – was discussing the report with his neighbors. “Suddenly, the South Tower exploded in a huge plume of black smoke, and flame, and debris flying out of the building. That was the second plane.”

Debris from the explosion hit the roof of Harding’s parish. Meanwhile, the World Trade Center “looked literally like it was going to fall down on us. And from where we were, that would have meant it was going to fall pretty much on top of us.”

He was standing on the street with a group of people that happened to include Mayor Rudy Giuliani, when he heard “a rumbling behind us … We saw that the North Tower was coming down. It took only about 10 seconds.”

Trailed by a cloud of “volcanic-like ash,” Harding made his way north with his son, making contact with his wife later that day. One of his friends worked at the South Tower’s Windows on the World Restaurant, but hadn’t gone into work that morning. “As it turned out, all of her friends were killed.”

Harding, who was born in 1938 and lost his father in World War II, says he felt less shocked by the events than many younger Americans. For him, the attack by radical Muslims was “the extension of a long history of the United States … being a target of tremendous resentment or competition from other sectors in the world,” as it had been during the Second World War.

But he believes the U.S. lost its way in some respects after 9/11, rather than rising to the occasion. He is struck by the “failure of leadership in America,” on the part of politicians he says are “exploiting our differences for narrow political ends of getting re-elected,” and “not really talking to America and the world about very fundamental things.”

Harding also believes Americans gave in to fear after the attacks, placing their trust in morally questionable tactics in the interest of national security.

“I never thought, in my lifetime, that I would hear people on television debating whether, and what kind of torture, we should be using. Didn’t we have the (Imperial Japanese) Bataan death march? What is going on here? This is crazy … It’s fear. Where there is fear, there cannot be faith.”

For Harding, the most profound lesson of 9/11 is that people around the world “have to be humble, and accept that reality is ruled by a power greater than ourselves.”

Harding’s pastor, Father Kevin Madigan, had just finished hearing confessions and offering Mass at St. Peter’s on September 11, 2001, when his secretary told him a plane had hit one of the towers. Later that day, wounded and dying people were brought to his church en route to the hospital or morgue.

After the attacks, Fr. Madigan found that many New Yorkers needed “a deeper, more expansive vision of God, and a deeper relationship with God, that’s able to be sustained even when things are not going my own personal way.”

Fr. Madigan recalled noticing other positive, but fleeting, changes in the city during the fall of 2001.

“In the weeks afterward, I saw a great change in people. Just the average person on the street would be much more compassionate, much more caring. People seemed to be more tuned in to what were the important things in life.”

“But I think one way of putting it, is that the alarm went off – and people hit the ‘snooze’ button soon afterwards. They went back to sleep.”

As the U.S. marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as well as United Flight 93, Fr. Madigan also wonders whether American Christians are prepared to consider the event in light of their faith.

“We’ve been in a state of perpetual war for the past ten years – in Afghanistan, in Iraq, now in Libya. And is it going to be someplace else, maybe Yemen, next?”

“As Christians,” Fr. Madigan wonders, “how do we begin to work toward the way of peace?”