Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A Few Thoughts About the Demise of Osama bin Laden, 9/11, and Listening to My Gut

This is adapted from a comment I posted on Facebook in response to a friend and colleague's recalling the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

I watched the second tower of the World Trade Center's tallest buildings--its twin towers--fall. It was terrifying, even viewing it on television. The visual memories are still vivid in my mind, too. I remember hoping and praying that my nephew, who was just 2 years old at the time, and other small children were not watching the horrific spectacle unfold. I don't cry very often, but seeing the implosion of that building, and thinking of all of the people who must have been dying inside at it that very moment, moved me to tears in a way and intensity that I hadn't cried in a very long time.

I came very close to being in New York City--and specifically at the WTC--that day. Since I was considering making a stop in Manhattan, I intended to visit the WTC towers because I had only walked past them at ground level and was amazed by their size. Since my first visit to New York in 1986, I had wished to see the city from the top of one of those majestic towers. After attending a weekend conference on holistic law in northern Vermont, I was riding home on Amtrak's Vermonter train on Sunday, September 9, and was considering changing my ticket from my connection point in Springfield, MA and riding to NYC to visit some friends there.

Those friends were members of the New York Athletic Club's boxing team--the counterpart to the group of boxers we had assembled at the Chicago Athletic Association. I had attended a conference about Internet law in September 2000, and stayed at the NYAC, since my club had an arrangement with the NYAC that allowed members of each club to enjoy reciprocal privileges at the other club.

I met some great people and heard interesting presentations at the conference, which took place at a hotel just a few blocks from the NYAC. Although it was after the "dot-com bust," the other lawyers attending the conference expressed a lot of optimism about the seemingly boundless potential of the Internet for the expansion of commerce and as a tool for facilitating the practice of law. Indeed, back home in Chicago the previous week, I attended an "Internet street fair" just a few blocks from my old home in West Town. Business cards were rapidly changing hands, networking was happening with a lot of smiles and hopes for new connections that would yield incredible wealth; in short, the mood at the event was positively euphoric.

The boxers at the NYAC had rolled out the red carpet for me. Although I had only known them a short time, my NYAC friends--Dave F., John L., and John O.--treated me as if we had all been friends since boyhood. The team's coach and the other boxers welcomed me warmly and with a lot of enthusiasm, and I got a good workout. It was great to be treated so well by other enthusiasts of our sport, several of whom had met me for the first time that evening. Dave even invited me to box in the NYAC's event in May 2002, featuring all bouts between NYAC members and a few guests from other clubs with reciprocal arrangements. I was hoping to take him up on the offer--I think it would have been a blast--but some client matters prevented me from going to New York and participating.

Thus, I was keen to see Dave, John, and John again, and continuing on to New York would have put me in Manhattan on a Monday, one of the two days that all the guys trained together as a group. My spur-of-the-moment plan was to arrive in NYC on Sunday night, stay at the NYAC on Sunday and Monday nights, visit the WTC towers for what I hoped would be a spectacular view of New York in all its grandeur, and then take Amtrak home on Tuesday afternoon.

While riding the Vermonter, I had a strange experience as I was daydreaming about my possible visit to New York and seeing my friends again. Despite my enthusiasm about an impromptu visit to the city, a small voice inside me kept nagging at me to go straight home, insisting that I had a lot of work to do back in Chicago. That wasn't quite true, because, even though the first two quarters of 2001 had been quite prosperous for me, the end of the summer ushered in a relatively slow period in my law practice. Further, I really wanted to see my NYC friends and wanted to see the view from the top of the WTC, but I sensed something pulling me back home with an urgency that was totally illogical. To this day, that experience seems strange to me. I can't explain it.

While it may have been exaggerated, my inner sense of duty prevailed, so I listened to my gut and stuck with my original travel plans. I stayed on the train, picked up the Lakeshore Limited in Springfield, and rode the thousand or so miles home to Chicago. The ride was comfortable and scenic; I was traveling first class, so it was mostly an enjoyable ride, albeit a long one (close to 30 hours, due to a delay--the train ahead of the one I was riding had run out of fuel!). Unbeknown to me at the time, listening to my gut may well have saved my life, or at least protected me from a hell of a lot of shock and expensive inconvenience.

I arrived home the afternoon of September 10, filled with powerful and hopeful, if somewhat naive, ideas about peace, justice, reforming the practice of law, and evolving eventually into a society in which law would not even be necessary because people would operate out of love, mindfulness, and kindness toward one another and all beings. At the conference, I had prayed with a lawyer from upstate New York and I now realize that our prayer, and all these positive thoughts, were simply about facilitating the Kingdom of God on earth ("Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"). More briefly, I was renewed, refreshed, and psyched about the possibilities for myself and for all of humanity.

That vision suffered a stunning blow in the horrific happenings of the next morning. The striking contrast between Monday and Tuesday still sometimes startles me when I remember it. It was amazing how life, or at least my perception of it, could change so dramatically in just one day.

For a while, I second-guessed much of what I had experienced over the previous weekend. The lofty thoughts my holistically-oriented colleagues and I shared over the weekend were overshadowed by grim images from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the flight that had crashed in a field Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard the airplane. Eventually, my goals of working for peace and justice returned, but they were marred by a cruel reality: as a society, we would have to accomplish those goals in a hostile environment that was far too often filled with hatred and violence.

Fast forward a little less than 10 years, to the night of May 1, 2011, when President Obama announced to the nation and the world that Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the September attacks, had been killed by a military operation in Pakistan. My first reaction was feeling like a huge burden had been removed from my mind; for a moment or two, I thought that the world would be safe from the plague of terrorism. That response was quickly displaced by a more realistic notion: one major terrorist is gone, but a lot of work remains to be done. Some of that work will be military, some political, some humanitarian, and some of it will be the ongoing attempt to reconcile some of the shocking and divisive differences that separate nations, cultures, and religions.

There was much rejoicing among my countrymen on the night of May 1. It reminded me of the spontaneous outburst of merriment in the movie, The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy, Glinda (the good witch), and the citizens of Munchkinland celebrate the demise of the Wicked Witch of the East by singing the song, "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead!"

My reaction was considerably more muted. I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't glad to see Mr. bin Laden gone; I experienced a considerable sense of relief at the news. On the other hand, I don't think we've seen the last of al-Qaeda, nor of terrorists bent on killing and maiming in the name of some other "cause."

I can't control what others do, and I've learned that it's folly even to attempt such manipulation. At the holistic law conference, many of my fellow lawyers reminded me several times, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

I am one man. My influence is limited, but it would be wrong to use that fact as an excuse not to leave the world a better place than it would have been without me. Like every other human being, I need to start from where I am and do what I can. I need to live the spirit expressed in the song by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller that is sung so often in churches. In other words, "let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."

1 comment:

Steven Imparl said...

Hi Cole,

Thanks for your comment. I suppose being happy at the death of a fellow human being--regardless of how widely despised that individual may have been--seems a bit odd to me.

The images you recall are frightening and painful ones. The sight of people dropping from the WTC towers shook me up on the morning of September 11, 2001, and seeing photos or video of them still rattles me.

I am sorry to learn that you had such unpleasant encounters with people online. The linking of this situation to "when a pedophile was called to justice" is really flimsy. Such comments are meant to bait you, to trigger some hostile response.

It sounds like you handled the situation in a mature, kind, compassionate, and spiritually sound manner. I am sad to learn of the abuse you experienced.

I don't think you are crazy at all for your reaction. I am glad you decided to pray for that friend; like everyone, she needs healing. I like what you said, that for you, "forgiveness, not vengeance brings peace." Violence seems invariably to beget more violence. I think Jesus was teaching us about that when He offered His "turn the other cheek" instruction.

Some people interpret that teaching as saying we should just let people abuse us. I disagree with that reading of the lesson. To me, Jesus was talking in very practical terms, from His deep understanding of human nature. As long as we return violence with violence, the cycle of violence will never end; it will continue and escalate.

It's very difficult to follow this teaching in the midst of receiving a lot of pain and harm from others. However, it does offer an alternative. We are truly free to respond differently, to refuse to continue violent behavior. It takes great courage to step outside that raging realm of retaliation, but it can be done. It's not easy, but possible.

Thanks for your kind words. It's reassuring to know that others share some of the ambivalence I felt at Mr. bin Laden's death. I wouldn't call it joy or happiness, nor would I say I was especially sad. I experienced a weird mix of relief and apprehension about what will happen next.

I hope you'll become a regular visitor and commenter here. Thanks!