FAITH AND DOUBT AT GROUND ZERO
Produced by Helen Whitney
Written by Helen Whitney & Ron Rosenbaum
ANNOUNCER: It's been just one year now.
SPEAKER: The heavens were blue and clear and perfect.
Rabbi BRAD HIRSCHFIELD, Orthodox Rabbi: Religion drove those planes into those buildings.
ANNOUNCER: And there are still so many questions.
SPEAKER: If there is a God, what is happening?
ANNOUNCER: Including perhaps the ultimate questions.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, an intimate and profound investigation of the spiritual aftershocks of September 11.
BERNIE HEERAN, Retired NYC Firefighter: I asked God in the beginning, you know, if you can give me this one, I- I'd appreciate it. But I knew from being a fireman that my son couldn't have been in a worse possible position.
ANNOUNCER: Those who lost loved ones, and many other Americans, are haunted by questions of faith.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.
ANNOUNCER: Was it true evil the world witnessed that day? Is religion itself to blame? And where was God on September 11th?
MARIAN FONTANA, Writer: I couldn't believe that this God that I'd talked to in my own way for 35 years turned this loving man into bones, and now I can't bring myself to speak to him anymore because I feel so abandoned.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, confessions of Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.
It was hell on earth.
You couldn't dream it.
This burning horror- my mother's in that.
How could God be in the horror of what I saw?
What kind of God is this?
How can you believe in such a God?
It's nothing to do with God.
I saw evil all in that building.
This is what evil looks like.
Being trapped in that building, was there any God with them?
There is no answer. There is only anger. A lot of anger.
Religion drove those planes into those buildings.
If people can kill for God in this way, this is the best reason never to believe in God!
It looked like a giant syringe had sucked out this wonderful, amazing hope that we had in this country, was sucked out at Ground Zero.
NARRATOR: Almost everyone has a moment when they feel lost in darkness, a loved one snatched away, disease, natural disaster, human cruelty. Almost everyone at some point asks the question, "Why me? Why her? Why, God?"
What made September 11th different from other dark nights was that so many Americans came away from it asking these fundamental questions at the same time, not only those who witnessed the slaughter at Ground Zero but those who watched in horror at a distance.
We set out to document this national conversation, not the customary analysis of politics and economics, but a conversation about spiritual questions. From the moment of the attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon, many people - believers and unbelievers - started to talk about the role of God, the problem of evil, and a newer, more disturbing question about the potential for violence within religion itself.
What did America see that day? And what did it mean for our spiritual lives?
Act 1: September 11
The glory of that day.
The sky was an unbelievable blue.
The heavens were blue and clear and perfect.
A gorgeous Tuesday morning.
The crispness of that day, which made the whole thing look totally surreal.
KIM COLEMAN, Retired NYC Police Officer: I realized that the first plane hit my daughter's building. And as I bent over to pick up the telephone, my daughter was on the other line. And she was telling me that she was scared and that it was real smoky in there and they couldn't breathe.
MARIAN FONTANA, Writer: And I remember seeing this black, very straight plume of smoke start to come over the sky. And then I started to get worried, because Dave works in a specialized fire company, that he would probably go and be stuck in the city for a lot of hours. And so I was initially annoyed.
SEAN HEERAN, Stock Trader: I just asked the trader next to me, "Why are there papers flying around outside?" And then automatically it was on TV - a plane's hit the World Trade Center north tower, where my brother was. And first thing, you know, just chills ran through my body. I just knew he was in trouble. I spoke to my father, and my father said he had spoke to him.
BERNIE HEERAN, Retired NYC Firefighter: And I picked up the phone and there was a sharp, "Dad, a plane hit the building." He wanted to vent, take the windows out in his office. And I told him no, to take the people he was with to the roof. They were on the 104th floor. I just always thought about helicopter lift off the roof if it got bad.
TERRY McGOVERN, Attorney: I put on CNN, and I saw the north tower burning. I knew my mother was in the south tower. And as I was watching, I saw the plane fly into the south tower, my mother's tower. Watching this unfold live on TV, like, these flames right where I knew she was. And then my heart started beating really fast.
TIM PEARSON, Dpty. Inspector, NYPD: Oh, God! Please! No!
STANLEY PRAIMNATH, Loan Officer: And here coming towards me, the biggest aircraft that I'd ever seen in my life- eye level!
BRIAN CLARK, Banker: Boom! We got hit, just this tremendous thump.
STANLEY PRAIMNATH: The sound that it made when it crashed, that screeching, horrifying, ghostly sound. When this plane stopped, that wing was stuck in my doorway at the office, 20 feet from where I was.
BRIAN CLARK: The building moved off to the west and kept moving and kept moving. It went and it went and it went and it kept going, and I truly thought the building was going over. But then it stopped, and it slowly came back to vertical.
There was jet fuel coming out of that building. There was fire dropping. There was debris hitting the ground.
Chunks of concrete and steel.
This fireball came out of the elevator. This just enormous orange ball came right at me.
SHOWKATARA SHARIF CHOWDHURY, Teacher: [through interpreter] I called my daughter, Shakila. "Please call me back. Where are you? Let me know." I did not get a reply.
SHARIF CHOWDHURY, Insurance Agent: [through interpreter] I drove towards New York, but all the tunnels were closed.
I can literally see people hanging from windows, jumping from windows.
At first, you know, I thought they were birds. You looked and you said to yourself, "My God! These are people coming down!"
MARIAN FONTANA: I saw the whole top of the tower in flames. My friend, Mila, called and she said, "Would Dave be in there?" And I said, "Yeah." She was, "Are you sure? Where would he be?" And I said, "Well, he'd probably be running in, and he'd probably be, you know, pretty far up." And right when I said that, I saw the tower start to come down. And I dropped the phone and I collapsed to the floor, and I knew he was dead. I just knew.
TERRY McGOVERN: This building just turned into dust on TV, and it was, like, this couldn't be happening. This couldn't be happening. But then these horrifying moments of - my mother's in that. You know? It was like- it's weird, but it felt like our great- I mean, it was a great moment of separation. You know, there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could do. My mother was in that, and there was absolutely nothing I could do. And it just got worse and worse before my eyes.
TIM LYNSTON, Security Guard: I watched them just crumble like a deck of cards. And I knew there were people in those buildings. I couldn't conceive all this concrete and fire and furniture, everything just collapsing on a human body that was so frail.
Father PAUL WEIRICHS, FBI Chaplain: Every 20 feet, I would have a fireman or a policeman come up to me and say, "Bless me." You know, "Hear my confession," so- and I had no time to hear confessions, I just asked them if they were sorry for their sins, I would give them absolution. It was overwhelming.
MARIAN FONTANA: I think I wandered into every church in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I just stumbled in and dropped to my knees everywhere I went and just prayed and prayed and prayed.
BERNIE HEERAN: I asked him, in the beginning, you know, "If you can give me this one, I'd appreciate it." [weeps]
TIM PEARSON, Dpty. Inspector, NYPD: We heard this loud, rumbling noise - Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! - and you'd look and you're seeing debris. And you say, "Oh, my God! Please don't tell me this is what's happening." And all of a sudden, you realize it's the facade of the building and it's coming down, and it's coming down hard and fast. And I'm realizing, "I'm dead."
SEAN HEERAN: It was just complete horror.
TIM PEARSON: And I said, "Oh God! Please! No!"
SEAN HEERAN: I saw hell.
We just started running. You know, it was people getting trampled.
Oh, God, spare me!
JOSH SIMON, Rabbinical Student: People streaming uptown by the thousands, carrying their briefcases, in total silence, just streaming like the living dead. The exodus. It was like the Day of Judgment or an apocalyptic prophecy come true. But this awestruck silence.
Everyone had that stunned look, not believing what they were witnessing. There was just an awesome sense of bewilderment.
NARRATOR: The drama of faith and doubt began as soon as the first plane disappeared into the side of the north tower. In the silence that followed, America's sense of invulnerability was shaken. Many people were forced to confront their own deaths as they imagined the terror of those who jumped.
LUCA BABINI, Photographer: To me, the idea of standing on a ledge of the 80th floor of a high-rise and look at a woman or a friend and hold hands and say, "We're going to," like, "fly down and die together now, holding hands"- it's something that is so beyond my courage. You know, how many times I have actually visualized myself in that situation since that happened, and I can't even imagine how to do that!
Dr. MICHAELBRESCIA, Physician: I saw the pictures of the people at the windows, knowing what was happening, that there was no ladder, "There is no ladder long enough to reach me, there is no helicopter on the roof that's going to come." I wonder how many thought if there was a God, and if there was a God, "Why me? Why this? And where am I going to go? Is there a heaven I'm going to?"
LUCA BABINI: I mean, I'm sure that there is so many religious people asking themselves questions. Did they hear a voice? Did they hear a calling? Did they see a beautiful garden with rivers and lakes down there? Was their pain so much that some device that we don't know about that we have inside ourselves - some spiritual device - just triggered on, and all of a sudden, it was heaven already before they jumped, and they were just jumping into something beautiful? Because I tell you, I could not do it. Something special must have been going on because a lot of them jumped.
Father GEORGE RUTLER, Catholic Priest: When those towers came down, we were being reminded of our mortality. If those- the biggest buildings in the biggest city in the center of the universe - I speak as a New Yorker again - could come down, this world will come down. Just the buildings, just being so massive and powerful, gave us an illusion that we were that way, too.
Act 2: The Face of God
NARRATOR: Where was God on September 11th? For some, he was among the missing. For others, he was right there at Ground Zero. The questions that had begun to be asked that day would intensify, especially for those who suffered terrible losses.
BERNIE HEERAN: I came to church, and I kind of negotiated with God and asked him to- if he could give me this one. But I knew from being a fireman that my son couldn't have been in a worse possible position. All the people above- you couldn't have been in a worse spot than anybody in that fire.
SEAN HEERAN: My brother, Charlie, and my father were very tight. He just had a special relationship with him. If you were a guy, if you were a girl, you always wanted to be around him. Always. He lit up a room. He lit up a room. He's 24 years old. He just had so much talent, so much potential. Whether it was working on Wall Street, whether it was helping my dad at the bar, he just had a special charisma about him that made people respond to him.
BERNIE HEERAN: I asked him for help that day, and he couldn't do it, you know, and- you know, I was looking for more give-backs. I thought a couple more firemen would walk out of that building, but it just didn't work that way. But I continued to ask.
His two- my son's two brothers were there that day. I could have lost three sons. And I could have lost more firemen that were there, that I knew, that I've talked to. And they made it. So they're the give-backs. I mean, you can't- I question, "Why not me, and leave my son?" I mean, I would have switched.
I communicate to my son through God, I would imagine. I found myself closer to God because of wanting- picturing, in fact, that my son is with him. You know, that's where I want him to be, you know, and now he's going to help me. He's watching me, you know? I tell my friends I got to be good. My son's watching me now, you know?
SEAN HEERAN: I usually go to Saint Patrick's Cathedral in midtown Manhattan because I feel that it's my brother's home now. I go there to see him. And I just go there and, you know, light a candle and buy him and his buddies, you know, a beer. I throw a couple of bucks in the little thing, I buy him a beer because just- I got to visit him.
BERNIE HEERAN: At this stage, I haven't questioned him saying- you know, I asked him in the beginning, you know, "If you can give me this one, I'd appreciate it." But it- he had nothing to do with this. There were a lot more people that could have been killed. He was fighting the evil that day, like he does every day, you know? The Fire Department calls fire "The Devil." You know, firemen call fire "The Devil." And that day we fought the devil, and we saved a lot of people, you know? But the devil's the devil. You got to- you know, you got to fight the devil. And just- God's always around.
KIM COLEMAN: I realized that the first plane hit my daughter's building. And as I bent over to pick up the telephone, my daughter was on the other line. She didn't know what happened. So I told her that a plane had hit her building and for them to get out of there. And I could hear my daughter tell her co-workers that her mother told her a plane hit the building and they needed to get out.
Then she asked me where was her baby. And I told her I had her baby and he was OK. And she asked me just to take care of him, and I said "OK, just get out of there." And I ran out of my apartment into the hallway, and I was just screaming in the hallway. And all of a sudden, my neighbors came out and they didn't know what happened. And I just said, "My baby's gone!''
That night, when I went to bed, after I finally was able to lay down, there was a light that shines through my window. And for some reason, this light was real bright. And I opened my eyes, and I saw an angel. She was dressed in white and she had a smile on her face, and I took that to believe that she was letting me know that my daughter was in heaven and that she was OK.
I just pray every day that she didn't suffer and maybe she just fell off to sleep and she didn't feel anything. I know she was scared, but I know my daughter also has faith in God, so I know she was praying.
I never question why God didn't intervene. I often ask the question as to why he picked her, but I have come to the conclusion that I felt God knew something I didn't know. And maybe he felt that- maybe she was- even though she was here 23 years, that she was suffering a lot more than I knew about. And I felt that God knew best. I always felt that way when he takes someone, that he knows better than we do.
SHARIF CHOWDHURY: [through interpreter] They say the planes hit the building somewhere in the 92nd to the 101st floor. It's terrible to think that 2,000 gallons of petrol burned through the building, totally scorching my daughter to death. Our son-in-law, Nurul, worked on the 93th floor. We were hoping that he might just have barely survived. I pray to Allah that if they survive, let them both survive. If they have to die, let them both go to Allah together. What was Allah's wish? My daughter and her husband both went to Allah together.
SHOWKATARA SHARIF CHOWDHURY: [through interpreter] In their one year of marriage, I have never seen my daughter unhappy. Nurul took great care of her and made her so happy. We were very lucky to have found Nurul. But even after finding him, we still lost him. And I cannot protest to Allah or ask why he took my daughter. It is all his will. No matter what I do - if I cry, if I scream - I can't bring her back. And so I have to accept that that is Allah's will.
STANLEY PRAIMNATH: It was the darkest day in my life, loneliest day in my life, most horrifying day in my life. When I looked through that window towards the Statue of Liberty and I saw that plane coming towards me, I was numb. This monstrous plane looking at me, like, "I'm taking you." Part of the 82nd floor collapsed. All the walls were knocked flat. I was screaming, crying and praying out loud, "Lord! Help me! Please! Send somebody!"
BRIAN CLARK: And I heard this, "Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Help! Help!"
STANLEY PRAIMNATH: I felt like this strange force came over me, this power that I've never felt before. And I looked at this wall, and I started to hit and punch and kick. And I busted a little hole. And Brian said, "I see your hand!"
BRIAN CLARK: And I was able to grab onto something, whether it was his collar or his- we locked arms, I'm not sure. And then I lifted him out. And we fell in a heap on the floor, and we introduced ourselves. He said, "Oh! Hallelujah! I'm Stanley!" And I said, "My name's Brian. We might be friends for life!" You know, that sort of emotion overcame us. And then I said, "Well, come on, let's go. Let's get out of here."
STANLEY PRAIMNATH: So here I am, running, screaming, like everybody else. My Lord upheld this building. Then we were in perfect safety. The building collapsed. And here I am, God-delivered, and I'm angry, angry because all these good people who were there- the firefighters, the cops, the EMS workers- all of these good people who were left in this building, which I'm sure they were, that couldn't come down from the 81st or 82nd floor, coming down because of all of this debris, they perished. So I'm angry.
BRIAN CLARK: Just like he intervenes in everybody's life, God intervened in my life that day. It- I couldn't predict what he was going to do. I didn't feel like he was intervening at any second, particular second. It just unfolded, and here I am. Clearly, everybody had different experiences. My experience was to be able to meet Stanley in a special way and to get ourselves out of the building. Other people didn't have that same experience. Whatever God's plan is or was and shall be - is, was, and shall be. I can't question it.
MARIAN FONTANA: I think I went to 14 funerals and wakes. It became a full-time job. They were very draining and painful. I decided to plan Dave's on his birthday, October 17th, went through the pain of writing his eulogy, which was the hardest thing I've ever written, and I'm a writer.
It was incredibly moving. There were thousands of firemen lined in the streets and thousands of neighbors and people who were standing in solemn respect for Dave, and fire trucks and bagpipes and processions of firefighters and everybody. And I just spoke about him and his life and what he meant to me and our 17 years together. I talked about the kind of man he was, which was completely- oh, he was a beautiful spirit who gave to everybody, was so kind and generous in a very quiet and humble way.
He was creative. He was a sculptor and a historian. He liked simple pleasures. He liked a warm fire, stars, Ireland, a pint of Guinness, being with his son. He was the most incredible father. He gave up a lot so he could be around him and loved him so deeply that it touched me constantly. The love he felt was very profound for his son. He was a big man who just enveloped everybody with his love and spirit and kindness. So that was the kind of man he was.
It was December 6th, and I was in Hawaii with a lot of the firemen from my husband's house. And I felt his presence everywhere that day, and everybody kept remarking on how they felt Dave's presence at the beach. It was the first day I felt, like, relaxed, that I could finally enjoy something. And it just felt good to just breathe in the air and watch the firemen smile for the first time since the 11th.
I got back to the hotel room, and I guess that's when I really felt the stark reality of everything. And I sat there by myself and watched the sunrise. And it was such startling beauty that I couldn't believe that this God that I'd talked to in my own way for 35 years could make the most beautiful place in the world and turn this loving man into bones. And I couldn't reconcile the difference between those two extremes. And I guess that's when I felt that my faith was so weakened by the 11th. And so I felt like God was just not present in me the way it had been.
I guess all I feel, at this point, is the profound absence of Dave. And my conversations with God that I used to have, I don't have anymore. I just can't bring myself to- I used to talk quietly to myself or to God and say, "Thank you for Dave. Thank you for Aidan. Thank you for my life. God bless everyone. God bless the children." You know, "Please heal the sick." You know, the usual blessings. And now I can't bring myself to speak to him anymore because I feel so abandoned.
Bit I guess deep down inside, I know he still exists and that I have to forgive and move on. But I'm not ready to do that yet.
[www.pbs.org: Share your stories of faith and doubt]
TIM LYNSTON: I really can't see the purpose why all these people had to die. I can't accept this. Right now, God's not giving me that comfort. We're a community in mourning. We were hit pretty bad. I knew close to 30 people who died at the World Trade. Basically, they were firemen, young stockbrokers, sons of friends I knew. I miss them dearly. I don't know if I'm ever going to get over a couple of them. I mean, we were really tight. You know, we did a lot of things together.
And I had to come down here to the beachfront to just let loose, and it was brutal. I let loose at God. I fired all my barrels at him. It might sound crazy, but I cursed him. I damned him. I think God could have just ended this all. That's why I feel strongly that I'm losing respect for him. I know there's a Trinity. I believe in the Son, but the Father I'm having a rough time dealing with. I'm really having a rough time.
I didn't have any love for God the weeks that followed September 11th. It was really hatred. I can't accept this unless I can have an answer as to why it all occurred.
I come down- basically, when I come down here, and- no question about it, I cry when I come down here and I'll talk to my friends. I think my friends can hear me. God knows, they're watching over all of us. I feel sometimes they're helping me along with my life, trying to make me stronger.
It was too barbaric. It was too barbaric, the way the lives were taken. That wasn't mercy.
So I look at him now as a barbarian, and I probably will. And it's a sad situation. I think I'm a good Christian, but I have a different view and image of him now, and I can't replace it with the old image. I can't replace it with the old image.
NARRATOR: For many people who did not lose loved ones, the questions were also urgent and personal. Something about September 11th powerfully challenged their beliefs.
Rev. JOSEPH GRIESEDIECK, Episcopal Priest: The face of God for me was one that was strong, secure, consistent, a face that while at times seemed distant, could more or less be counted on to be there, who kept things in order - the sun would come up, the sun would go down - who'd provide, could be counted on.
After September 11th, the face of God was a blank slate for me. God couldn't be counted on in the way I thought God could be counted on. That's what I felt as I stood on Ground Zero. God seemed absent. And it was frightening because the attributes that I had depended upon had all been stripped away. And I was left with nothing but that thing we call faith. But faith in what? I wasn't so sure.
Rabbi BRAD HIRSCHFIELD, Orthodox Rabbi: Since September 11th, people keep asking me, "Where was God?" And they think because I'm a rabbi, I have answers. And I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. If God's ways are mysterious, live with the mystery. It's upsetting. It's scary. It's painful. It's deep. And it's interesting. No plan. That's what mystery is. It's all of those things.
You want plan? Then tell me about plan. But if you're going to tell me about how the plan saved you, you better also be able to explain how the plan killed them. And the test of that has nothing to do with saying it in your synagogue or your church. The test of that has to do with going and saying it to the person who just buried someone and look in their eyes and tell them God's plan was to blow your loved one apart. Look at them and tell them that God's plan was that their children should go to bed every night for the rest of their lives without a parent. And if you can say that, well, at least you're honest. I don't worship the same God, but that at least has integrity.
It's just it's too easy. That's my problem with the answer. Not that I think they're being inauthentic when people say it or being dishonest, it's just too damn easy. It's easy because it gets God off the hook. And it's easy because it gets their religious beliefs off the hook. And right now, everything is on the hook.
JOSH SIMON, Rabbinical Student: I cling to a very noble image of God, a majestic God. Our anthems are basically hymns to this majestic God who blesses America with everything. But September 11th killed that God for me because there was no way to have a majestic God, a God who controlled everything. There was no way to have a God who understood reward and punishment, fair or unfair, who felt that America should be blessed above other nations because we were good people.
There was a God on September 11th who didn't even mind that God's own name could be used as the final prayer of a suicide hijacker as he plowed into a building. We needed, and I know I needed, to have another God to turn to at that moment, or there was going to be no God.
KANAN MAKIYA, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies: September 11th is harder for an atheist like myself than for a believer because it shook my belief in the one last foundation of everything, in the human race. That human beings could do this to other human beings- for me, it just- it confirms my atheism. And then that does leave you very, very isolated, not knowing where to turn. You can't hope anymore the same way.
Always I had a purpose, even in the darkest times. You write a hard book like "Republic of Fear," describing atrocities beyond belief, a regime that is truly beyond the pale, Saddam's regime in Iraq, which killed tens of thousands of its own citizens, 397 eliminated Kurdish villages in northern Iraq.
September 11th rendered all of that, both the activism and the writing, somehow futile and pointless because although I was used to despair, I was used to violence, and I had become habituated and know how to write about them and so on, what was new here was the rapturous embrace of violence, the scale-on such a scale that every effort to overcome it, which is what the purpose and the meaning of my work is, whether it be in the shape of an Arab-Israeli peace treaty or be in the shape of a different regime in Iraq- it doesn't matter. That's what one is trying to do, in one form or another. All of that paled into insignificance in contrast with this rapturous celebration of death that September 11th represented.
And the ability to overcome that now hurdle, which those young men created and put before a person like myself and my generation and others who think the same way, then just looks like a labor of Sisyphus, just to feel something hopeless and difficult to struggle against. And anything you do is so minute. And the aloneness that I feel in the Middle Eastern world- that's a spiritual crisis, but it's not one involving God. I don't begin to doubt even my own lack of faith because of it. I just- it's a sense of sinking into an abyss in which you can't hold onto anything in the world.
LUCA BABINI, Photographer: I don't know if I believe- if I ever believed in God because I figured that I was busy enough trying to stay alive. And I felt almost, like, pretentious whenever I thought of God because I figured, why would he, like, get involved in these little matters here? He gave us this to play with, so it's really our problem. If there is an intervention, it's at the very beginning or the very end of something.
And I have to tell you that believing- in that relationship with God, the twin towers is a lot more acceptable fact because you don't hate your God for having allowed that because you know that it's nothing to do with God, in the way that I believed in religion and God before. It's our toy, our game. The judgment is not at a daily level. Or God, you know, is not, like, there pushing us with a little finger over cliffs and pushing cars against other cars to make us die. I don't see it that way.
I see it in a much grander scale, so grand, like I said, I think- I always thought it was sort of pretentious to even try to understand. Sometimes I think that we're just a molecule in somebody else's hair in another planet. And we think we are this big deal, and one day this guy is going to, like, cut his hair and we're going to, like- our planet's going to blow. And we think that it's the end of the universe, and in reality, it's just somebody else cutting his hair on some other planet.
You know, I see it, like, a very, like, sort of organic situation here. And has it changed after September 11th? What has changed after September 11th is that I wish for the opposite. I wish that there was a God that I could access and that it could be proven that I can access him. I wish that God had a telephone number since September 11th,and I would be very- it doesn't have to be an 800 number, either. I'd gladly pay for the call, you know? That's what I wish. I wish it wasn't such a big question because in times like this, we need simple answers.
Rabbi IRWIN KULA, Conservative Rabbi: Since September 11th, this, for me, that there's something out there and that I'm here, no longer meant anything because every time I thought there was something out there, it turns into inevitably something opposed to me, something I have to define myself against, whether that's God or whether that's a Christian or whether that's a Muslim or whether that's a Buddhist. And that's not my experience.
My genuine experience of life is that there is nothing out there, this is all there is. And when you see the seamlessness of it all, that's what I mean by God. Every tradition has that. Every morning, three times a day since I'm 6 years old, 5 years old, I've been saying, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." Right? It's one of our few creedal statements, right, the Shema. Three times a day since I'm 6 years old.
And 9/11, I guess- if you ask me what did 9/11 really do, it made me understand the truth of that, that the truth of that, everything is one. Not that there's some guy hanging out there who has it all together, who we call One, but that it is all one.
We all know it deep down! We've all had those experiences, whether it's looking at our child in a crib, or whether it's looking at our lover or looking at a mountaintop or looking at a sunset, right? We've all had those experiences when we recognize, "Whoa! We're much more connected here." That's what those firemen had. They recognized. Now, they didn't have time to think about it, right, because actually, if you think about it, you begin to create separations. They didn't think about it. All they knew was we're absolutely connected. We're absolutely connected to the 86th floor.
Well, that's where God is. That's not where God is. God isn't anywhere. That's what we mean when we say God.
And yet, these insights of connectedness and oneness, which make us feel so at home in the world, are so difficult to hold onto. And so, inevitably, we wind up living lives of isolation and loneliness.
[www.pbs.org: Join a discussion on "where" God is ]
Rabbi IRWIN KULA: [singing] Hey, Jules. It's Brian. I'm on the plane and it's hijacked, and it doesn't look good. I just wanted to let you know that I love you and I hope to see you again.
These are final conversations that were recorded on cell phones, recorded on voicemail. They're so pure about the expression of love between husband and wife, between mother and child. They seem to me to be incredible texts because they were at the moment of confronting life or death. And for me, I chant these every single morning because they remind me that whatever my tradition is about, it's about this.
[singing] Mommy, the building is on fire. There's smoke coming through the walls. I can't breathe. I love you, Mommy. Goodbye.
The real Torah, the real wisdom, the real religious tradition, the real experience behind religion, is about love and is about connection and is no more complicated than that.
[singing] Honey, something terrible is happening. I don't think I'm going to make it. I love you. Take care of the children.
Act 3: The Face of Evil
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. Our country has been deeply wounded. I certainly never dreamt that I'd be the president where there is a war on our home front. But the evildoers, never really- they must have not known who they were attacking. In fact, the attacks have united our country, rallied a nation, and out of evil will come good.
NARRATOR: What was unusual about the President's words was his use of "evil" as a noun- not merely evildoers, evil acts, but evil. Bush's language provoked controversy and touched a nerve. What is it we talk about when we talk about evil?
ANDREW DELBANCO, Prof. of Humanities and Literature: It's a word we don't want to use casually. It's a word that we don't want to use to excuse ourselves by pointing the finger at somebody else and saying, ``There's evil! Go get it!" But at the same time, to pretend that an event like that which took place on September 11th can be explained with the ordinary language of politics or psychology seems to me quite inadequate to what happened.
I have felt for some time that American culture has lost touch with the reality of evil. We really did experience evil on September 11th, and we need to think about it and we need understand it in order to be able to cope with it both in others and in ourselves.
Dr. ANN ULANOV, Psychoanalyst, Professor of Theology: I think the September 11th attacks have introduced something new in the discussion of evil. From the psychological side, there are a whole lot of theories that say destructiveness comes from privation and deprivation. It isn't something in itself. It's from bad parenting or low self-esteem. What religion of any denomination, any tradition, offers to depth psychology is a recognition that evil is a force. It's not something that is caused just by the blows of fate.
Father GEORGE RUTLER, Catholic Priest: For those who accept Christ as the Savior, they have to recognize the fact that our Lord spoke very vividly and intimately of evil, of Satan. He doesn't talk in abstract terms about evil. He addresses evil as a person. When he confronts this man possessed with evil, he says, "Come out of him." He's speaking to something other than the man.
KHALED ABOU EL-FADL, Professor of Islamic Law: I believe that demons do exist. I think their will is contingent upon ours - in other words, they exploit our own weaknesses - that you can open the door for evil, but the outside being is not allowed to come inside of you until you open the door for that being. That is why the Qur'an refers to some human beings as- as if they have become demons.
IAN McEWAN, Author: I don't really believe in evil at all. I don't believe in God, and I certainly don't, therefore, believe in some sort of supernatural or trans-historical force that somehow organizes life on dark or black principles. I think there are only people behaving, and sometimes behaving monstrously.
And sometimes their monstrous behavior is so beyond our abilities to explain it, we have to reach for this numinous notion of evil. But I think it's often better to try and understand it in real terms, in real, you know, either political or psychological terms. There's something, at the same time, very, very attractive about this word. It's sort of- it's a great intensifier. It just lets us say that we thoroughly abhor, you know, this behavior.
So I think we have to beware of treating September 11th as the only and most spectacular event of human cruelty. There've been many acts of cruelty, some of them on an even larger scale. I think it's inherent. I think one of the great tasks of art is really to explore that, all those many, many sides of human nature.
RENEE FLEMING, Opera Singer: The tragedy that man wreaks on man, it's universal and it's been for all time. That's the beauty of working in art that spans centuries. One realizes that in love and war and lust and vengeance, man has changed virtually not at all.
I did question one- one word in my vocabulary after September 11th, and that was the word "evil" because I had decided that there was not even any black and white, that there were no extremes, that we lived in a world of gray, everyone was more complex than the word "evil" would allow. And I really thought about it a lot after that because I would always try to justify hate with learning. And I do think, to a great degree, that's true, that people learn how to hate and they can become very good at it, depending on what their personal circumstances are.
But I don't know. And I still don't know if- I don't know now. I question it now. Does evil exist? Is it real?
KANAN MAKIYA, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies: I think evil is something, when you see it, when you know it, it's intimate. It's almost sensual. I mean, that is whypeople who have been tortured know it by instinct. They don't need to be told what it is. And they may have a very hard time putting it into words, and they often will. It's- that's the nature of the phenomena. It's hard to put into words.
But you have to have that intimacy with it, that kind of should-to-shoulder rub, and you have to be able to see yourself there. Otherwise it runs this terrible danger of becoming something someone else is, and not you.
Suggesting evil is human doesn't mean we can always understand it. It's like a great work of art. You can never fully absorb it. It's got many dimensions. It lives on through time in different ways.
DASHA RITTENBERG, Holocaust Survivor: I can only describe evil by giving you what I remember, not what I read in a book, but what I, my own eyes and ears heard and saw evil. What happened to my parents? They were the last people to leave the ghetto, and they were taken to Auschwitz. I know that they were burned into ashes. My mother, my father, my three brothers, my younger sister, my uncles, my aunts, their children, burned into ashes.
That's all I have seen in humanity is evil. I've seen hangings. I've seen shootings. I saw one man whose name was Mischka. He was a Ukrainian. He was drunk. He would just go killing. Every single day, he had to have his blood on his hands, Jewish blood. Evil? You want to hear more? So. All the ghetto life, the hunger, the poverty, the lice that were crawling on my body. Evil. Evil people just patting their dogs and then killing a child because it was Jewish. Evil, OK? Hitting, slapping for no reason, because you were not even in line with the next person, being hit by dogs and bitten, the blood running out of your feet. Evil.
People would go to sleep every night, get up in the morning and eat and drink and be evil. Were they, too, created in the image of God? I don't know. What does it say about God?
KHALED ABOU EL-FADL: How can you kneel in submission to a God who authors evil? I follow a school within Islam called the Mutazila, which said, "No, God doesn't preordain everything. God doesn't write everything somewhere. And God doesn't- is not the creator of evil, is not the maker of evil, and also is not the creator and maker of all good." There are so much good that is the product of my decision, my consciousness, my will as a human being.
KIRK VARNEDOE, Former MoMA Curator: What was creepier and stranger about the people who flew into the buildings on September 11th was that this level of fanaticism had been maintained on a calm and even plane over a whole number of years.
These were middle-class people. They had families. They had money. They had all the seeming advantages. They lived in the heart of what America thinks of as its great, fat, happy middle. They went to the malls. They ordered pizza. They were in bars. They lived this life for years.
And still, on the day, they got on the plane, checked their bags and knew they were never getting off that plane and that they were going to kill themselves to do it. And they carried it through.
The change in my idea of what fanatic meant, at that point, my sense of the power of deep-burning absolutism and hatred shifted and became scarier because I was used to the crazy teenager who blows himself up, but the calculating person who understands- you know, learns how to fly a 747, understands the dynamics of aviation fuel, knows what the structural requirements of the World Trade Center are, goes through all of this and then sits like a ticking time bomb for a year and a half, is a whole different order of absolutism, a whole different order of fervor. You think of fervor itself as something ignitable, volatile, but the cold-bloodedness of this operation was shocking.
KANAN MAKIYA, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies: The hijackers bring in a different element of evil. It's the sort of perfection of the death instinct, the absolute- it is the infatuation, rapture in the event of killing, of death of oneself and others, as many people as possible. That's what they bring that's so new, I mean, this ability to be at one with the desire to die and to inflict death on as many people as possible- not as an instrument, not as a means, I mean, that they may serve in some other, larger picture.
But it's the action- forgetting the politics of it entirely. Put that aside. Once a person has entered into the frame of mind- the politics may have been necessary to bring them there, but they have entered into the frame of mind where they are going to do- they are going to pursue the death wish to its ultimate, fullest extreme.
Now, how do you then think up a way of doing that, an absolutely diabolical way of doing that, that has the qualities of a spectacle, a great spectacle, and mass destruction? But to have elevated it to this level is what is new, terrifying, and probably, in the end, evil, truly evil, about what happened. And it is recognizing it as evil that allows us to change the discourse about it.
So that's why the word is important, especially for Muslims and Arabs to recognize it as such and to eject it out of themselves, out of their tradition, which hasn't been done yet.
MARGOT ADLER, NPR Correspondent: Vladimir Putin came to National Public Radio and gave an interview. And this became a big affair, and there were news articles about it all over the place. But the one thing that he said that I haven't forgotten- and it was never quoted anywhere. It was in no news story. But when I heard it, literally, the hair on the back of my wrists just stood up straight.
He was asked, "Well," you know, "what do you think about- what do you think when Regan said `the evil empire?' " You know, "What was your attitude?" And he said, "Well, I thought it was- you know, it was sort of a way of speaking. It was an exaggeration." And then the interviewer said to him, "Well," you know, "when George Bush talks about the"- you know, "Usama bin Laden as evil," you know, "do you think it's also a turn of phrase?" And Putin said, "No. I think that is really mild language. I have many words for them, but I couldn't say them on the air." And then he said, "We are as dust to them." That was the line that got me, "We are as dust to them."
So maybe what evil is, on some level, is when you get- when you believe in something so utterly that you lose your sense that a human being is a human being, when you feel that you can go into a building and kill 3,000 people and it doesn't matter because you are so focused on what you think is perfection and good, maybe that is a definition of evil. It's a kind of estrangement, though. It's an estrangement from your connection that these other human beings, the ones that are jumping out the window to the bottom, are just like you.
And that is probably the deepest religious perception that liberal religious tradition puts forward, that we are, you know, all human beings together on this planet in the same way, with certain kinds of values. And that's clearly what was lost.
Dr. ANN ULANOV, Psychoanalyst, Professor of Theology: Evil is a mysterious force. How else could one fly a whole plane full of people- how could you fly all those people, plus your own compatriots, into a building where thousands of people were working? How could you do that? You'd have to go against every instinct.
It wouldn't be enough to just be identified with your cause. It wouldn't be enough to be painted as a hero after you were dead or that your family would be rewarded. There'd have to be some experience of being in the grip of something. Now, they thought they were serving a good. On the receiving end, it's clear this is an evil. Why? Because it is so destructive. It's so beyond the bounds of human discourse, the discourse of war.
So I believe that evil, yes, you can get to it yourself. You can go to the place you've been hurt or threatened to be destroyed, or pieces of you have been destroyed, mangled, treated as if they are of no value. You can get to your outrage, your absolute determination to retaliate for vengeance, and you can understand how you feel that because of something done to you.
But deeper than that, it's like an undertow of the ocean. It's like an undertow current, a force that invites you to join it. As your feet are being pulled out from under you by the undertow, and you get caught in that, you're in something that's outside yourself. The personal explanation is not enough. Even the psychological explanation - archetypal pattern of energy, unconscious instincts of hate and cannibalism - even that isn't enough. That's involved, too, but it's as if one has a spell cast on one.
But you feel you are caught in what the New Testament calls principalities and powers. It's a power that catches you, and you are not enough by yourself to defeat it.
[www.pbs.org: Read more on the question of evil]
So we can say after September 11th, "Oh, bin Laden, he is the personification of evil." Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But even if you say that, evil's bigger.
Act 4: The Face of Religion
NARRATOR: Throughout time, religion has been a source of grace and consolation, and also of violence and divisiveness. Since September 11th, many are asking with urgency, and even anger, how can such things be done in the name of God?
Rabbi BRAD HIRSCHFIELD, Orthodox Rabbi: Religion drove those planes into those buildings. And that's upsetting, but that's what happened. And this idea that somehow that's not Islam, so we shouldn't worry, is- it's not only naive, it's stupid! It's wrong. There's a very rich tradition which they, you know, delved into to justify what they did.
By the way, hating doing it and fighting against it ever happening again is also Islam, just like within Jewish tradition. The guy who went into the mosque in the city of Hebron and murdered 29 human beings didn't do that out of the air. He had a deep connection to a tradition, a religious tradition in Judaism that pushed him there. Keeping him from doing it is also a serious religious tradition.
You don't sterilize these traditions and say, "No, no. They don't do anything wrong" because what's really going on when we do that is that we don't want- if Islam is clean and that's not real Islam, then I don't have to ask where is it real Jewish. And Christians don't have to ask where is it real Christian. And the worst thing we can do is make some kind of compact where none of us admit the blood on our hands. What we really have to do is admit the blood on all of our hands, not because it's equal blood, but because we've all been bloodied by these traditions.
KANAN MAKIYA: At this point in time, in this place, at this conjuncture in our history, religion did drive those planes into those towers. In some deep way, religion is responsible. Not any religion, but Islam in particular. I have always thought there were dark corners in religion. I took that for granted. That's not the surprising thing for me. The frightening thing is rather that in the Arab world, we have let the darkness of religion flourish. And the forces that are dampening it, at this moment in our history, are weak. And that is frightening.
Monsignor LORENZO ALBACETE, Catholic Priest: From the first moment I looked into that horror on September 11th, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognize an old companion. I recognize religion.
Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life. It's my vocation. It's my existence. I'll give my life for it. I hope to have the courage. Therefore, I know it. And I know and recognize that day that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion - because religion can be a passion - the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction.
When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I was not in the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognize it. I recognize this thirst, this demand for the absolute, because if you don't- if you don't hang onto the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognize this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the oneness of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different. These are characteristics of religion.
And I knew that that force could take you to do great things, but I knew that there was no greater and no more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.
[www.pbs.org: Read the interview]
Rabbi BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: You can get so drunk on God that you don't see anything else. And I didn't. It's so easy to get wrapped up in a messianic vision of how the world could be. And I know it's easy because I did it.
I spent a part of my life, between the ages of 17 and 21, living off and on in the city of Hebron. Hebron is traditionally understood by rabbinic tradition as one of the four holiest cities in the land of Israel. It's the burial place of the matriarchs and the patriarchs, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Sarah and Rebecca and Leah. And the site where they are buried has traded between being a mosque and a church many times in the last 1,800 years.
And for Jews to be able to go back to that place where the founding fathers and mothers are buried is unbelievable. To be able, at the age of 18 or 19, to say, "This is where I belong" after thousands of years of exile is intoxicating. You believe anything is possible.
I really don't remember, until it got so out of control that people I knew committed murder- I don't think that I thought for a minute about the impact of my beliefs on other human beings who didn't share them. Other people were just wrong.
It's amazing how good religion is at mobilizing people to do awful, murderous things. There is this dark side to it, and anyone who loves religious experience, including me, better begin to own there is a serious shadow side to this thing.
[www.pbs.org: Read the interview]
KANAN MAKIYA: Perhaps the most dangerous element that was picked out of the Muslim tradition and changed and transformed in the hands of these young men who perpetrated September 11th is this idea of committing suicide - they call it "martyrdom," of course, suicide is firmly rejected in Islam - as an act of worship. In the tradition, generally, to die in battle for the sake- for a larger purpose - that is, for the sake of the community at large - is a noble thing to do, self-sacrifice yourself as you defend the community. That is a traditional thing, and that has a traditional meaning of jihad.
But what is non-traditional, what is new, is this idea that jihad is almost like an act of private worship. You become closer to God by blowing yourself up in such a way. You, privately, irrespective of what effect it has on everyone else. That is new. And for these young men, that is the new idea of jihad. This idea of jihad allows you to think of- to lose all of the old distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, between just and unjust wars, between the rules of engagement of different types. All of that is gone because now the act of martyrdom is an act of worship.
These young men touched a chord among considerable numbers of Muslims in the Arab world and in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is what is so dangerous about Islam at this moment. These young men have captured the moral high ground - not of the whole of Islam yet, but they are in danger of capturing the moral high ground of a great religious tradition. And I think that is the great, great challenge that faces Muslims today is to repudiate that.
[www.pbs.org: Read the interview]
[Memorial Service at Yankee Stadium, Sept. 23, 2001]
PRESIDING OFFICIAL: And now I want to bring to you the Reverend Dr. David Benke, who is president of the Atlantic district of the Lutheran Church, the Missouri Synod.
Reverend DAVID BENKE, Lutheran Minister: The Yankee Stadium day was a pivotal day in my entire life. It was a day when everything that I had stood for as a human being, as well as a person of faith, was going to be on the line.
So take the hand of one next to you now and join me in prayer on this field of dreams turned into God's house of prayer.
We were in the middle of a very emotional, highly-charged event. There was a sense of people wanting to release these profound emotions that had just been harbored in them because they didn't know whether their husbands were going to be found, or their wives. They were still waiting for word from the rescue workers. They were still calling everybody "missing" at that time. They just came for some comfort, some- something to hang onto. Even though, you know, we all had questions about "Where was God," my prayer was, "You have to be our tower of strength, God. You cannot desert us at this moment." And that's how the prayer led off.
Oh Lord, our God, we're leaning on you today.
When I shared the podium with representatives of all the major faiths and prayed, that prayer became the center of a major controversy. The very next day, I began to get messages filled with hate. They were messages not from people outside of my tradition, but from within my tradition. And they were messages that nailed me to the floor, frankly, emotionally. They just said, "You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium. You are a heretic. You have dishonored your faith." One man said genuine terrorism was me. He said, "Planes crash and people die. Nothing big about that." Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer.
I just want to say that I have not gotten over that and I can't get through that because I lived through the real terrorists driving the planes into the real buildings and I've talked to people whose loved ones were murdered. And for me to be put in that same category is just not tolerable to me. I can't take it. I can't bear up under it. It doesn't make any sense to me.
Within two months, a number of those people put together a petition and filed charges of heresy, saying that I am not part of the Christian church because of what I did on that day and should not be part of my denomination anymore, should not be allowed to preach, should have my collar removed. The people who brought the charges against me are clergymen from my denomination. And their belief is that the doctrine of the church does not allow a Christian to stand at the same podium with someone of another faith, or everybody's going to get the idea that all religions are equal. And we have made absolute claims, exclusive claims about our faith.
If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worst moment in American history, perhaps, then what's underneath religion? Is religion really part of a lust for power and control in people's lives? Is it a desire for absolute security so strong that people cannot see the need to reach out and help? If that's true, then I've got a lot of wrestling to do with my own religion.
KHALED EL-FADL, Professor of Islamic Law: I am fighting for the soul and identity of Islam itself. I did speak out, but did I do enough? Did I do enough to prevent this? I really don't think that you can be- you can hold your head high and have a sense of dignity about yourself if you can't clearly confront the fact that this remarkable amount of ugliness was committed in the name of the faith that you believe in.
Well before this, there was the destroying of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan, there were the oppression of women, there were the decision to have Christians and Jews wear distinctive marks in Afghanistan. Bin Laden represents a puritan extremism within Islam, modern Islam. There is no question that the extremists and puritans want to be the only representatives of Islam who can tell you what God wants and what Islam is, and that's the beginning and the end.
What I think is the most dangerous is- there are few that are as arrogant or self-righteous as bin Laden within the Muslim world. But the most dangerous is a type of thinking that would allow a person to think they speak authoritatively and decisively for God. And that type of thinking is more widespread in contemporary Islam than bin Laden.
What I communicate to people is a message of tolerance, of a conception of God as beauty, the embodiment of beauty, and the insistence on the autonomy of the individual and the importance of conscience and the acceptance that the law does not necessarily embody morality, but that morality must always examine the law and shape the law.
KIRK VARNEDOE: That sense of religion - that we have a direct line to God, that we alone understand, and only people who are in our little circle understand that and the rest of them are heathens, barbarians, non-people, et cetera, et cetera - this is horrifying. And we keep being reminded that it is at the core and nature of religion to be intransigent, to believe that, "I understand what's right, and you are an infidel."
I came to think that art is exactly not what religion is, that it's not about absolutes and it has to do with the condition of being human, which is not ever to be able to deal with absolutes, that we deal in a world of doubts, a world of uncertainties, a world of ironies.
People say art is a substitute religion, and I thought about a lot about that in the aftermath of 9/11. It's true that art transports you, that it gives you the sense that you can find other worlds than the ones that you know are inside of you. There are so many imagined worlds. Each artist creates a world with its own logic and its own set of rules in which you can move in and inhabit. They find form that lets you imaginatively take part in experiences with which you may not have had any contact, and for a moment, conceive of a world as pearlescent and as beautifully, rectilinearly ordered as a Piero. To feel these things through art expands the reach of who you are.
But art doesn't only transport you to new, imagined places. It also, in the best sense, narrows your vision, focuses with a new immediacy on the things that may be the most familiar to you. It gives a new spiritual dimension to the objects that you touch, to the room that you inhabit. And this is not just a tidy or comfortable experience but can be suffused with a kind Dionysian pleasure, in the sense of the small world controlled and the poetry of the world possessed, this crossing over of the line between what is the love of the material thing, of the dust mote in the sunlight or the sheen of the porcelain, of the look of the ivy winding around the bowl of fish, you know, this sort of pleasure in the daily small things.
In art, through art, I think, transmutes itself into a form of spirituality, one to which I respond very, very strongly. That peculiar little religion, that alternative to the comforting absolutism of believing that if I run myself into a building, there will be 40 black-eyed virgins waiting for me on the other side- I don't want that kind of religion, and I don't want that kind of spirituality in art.
NARRATOR: But there is another face of religion that celebrates mystery and offers solace. In this time of questioning, that power of religion endures.
TERRY McGOVERN: I was raised Irish Catholic, but over the years, I really grew disillusioned with the church until the horror of September 11th. I just couldn't stop thinking about my mother. I obsessed about all these horrible things. Was she burned? I obsessed about our last conversations. I obsessed about if I didn't appreciate her enough. I obsessed about everything, everything.
I went and sat in the local church. It calls up kind of deep, ancient rituals. It has great resonance. It feels like it's connected to something much greater and larger, though I think I went there to feel the solitude and to lay at the feet of the altar "Why?" And then I think my mother's memorial mass, which I had no expectations for, turned out to be extremely comforting. The priest talked in his sermon about that- this was not God's will, that we can't find anything good in this, that all we can do in response to this is cry, that there is no- this is- this cannot be God's will.
So I guess it made me reexamine all of my feelings and wonder if I didn't need to re-enter the church community and if that world couldn't give me some answers that I desperately was looking for. How could this happen? Is this really it? Is that it? Is that it for my mother? I mean, she dies like that, you know?
I think on some very deep level, I don't- I want the church's teachings on the spiritual life after death to be true. I need them to be true. So- and- and frankly, the church since September 11th has comforted me.
When you have this kind of unimaginable horror happen to somebody that you love, you do have to find a way to connect and hope for something much deeper because otherwise, I think your mind could kind of snap, really. I mean, you have to believe that there is something deeper going on, that there's a spiritual life.
Act 5: Ground Zero
JOEL MEYEROWITZ, Photographer: I think that the World Trade Center site has achieved more than this notion of a cemetery, a graveyard. It's become hallowed ground. If you go to a cathedral every single day and sit inside that space, with its smells and its tones and its experience of place, you would know something about what emotions are embedded in that space. And this 16-acre plot is an enormous, open-air cathedral. And if you go into it every day, you will be changed. It's a visitation. It's knowledge.
The people who have attended to the clean-up, and I mean the firemen and the police and the rescue workers and the crane operators and the bulldozer drivers and everyone down there trying to find some remnant that could bring some peace to a family member - every day they show up and they're on their hands and knees.
I was down there at a moment that they were finding a larger number of remains. And coming up the ranks were six fireman carrying a little sled, draped with a flag. Every single person took off their helmet, put it over their heart, saluted, did this traditional American gesture of respect for the dead, and there was no one to do it for. There was no press. It wasn't a public demonstration. It was for the dead. And they did it over and over again.
But that weighs on them. That- it's a reminder because they have to put that- that remains on that sled. They have to handle that. And some of the remains are beyond words.
HELEN TWORKOV, Buddhist, Editor of Tricycle Magazine: I volunteered to go to Ground Zero, I think, for the same reasons that many people did. I wanted to do something. But I think I went down there out of a sense of civic duty. I didn't go down there out of any kind of great spiritual awakening. But once I got down there, there was something very compelling about being in that space, and it had to do with the way people were relating to each other. There was so much kindness and so much tenderness.
With 9/11, there was this monumental, massive act of destruction, and it took a tremendous amount of planning. It took a lot of thinking about. It took a lot of orchestration. It took a lot of synchronicity. It took a lot of people getting together and planning and going to flight school and talking to each other and raising a lot of money and figuring out how all of this was going to happen. It took an enormous amount of energy to be that destructive.
And when it happened, the day that it happened, the hours that it was happening, these stories of people waiting for their friends or not leaving their friends, or walking out in such peaceful lines, and these firemen and these policemen running upstairs to help people, and the way people treated each other- where did all that come from? There was no planning. There was no thought went into that. I mean, everybody was stunned. And within that being stunned, this kindness came out. And it came out a lot and everybody talked about it.
Everybody that was there, everybody that was in those buildings, everybody that was in those streets, running uptown, everybody talked about it. Where did it come from? It was just there.
Reverend JOSEPH GRIESEDIECK, Episcopal Priest: Right after September 11th, a good many individuals that I talked to were reexamining their relationships and taking concrete steps to reconcile relationships that were not reconciled. Some have said to me, "I was so materialistic. I'm trying to be more spiritual,'' whatever that means. Those are the positive changes, people wanting to mend relationships, become more spiritual.
There are other changes that I'm not pleased to see, and some of those changes are in myself- a deepened sense of cynicism, a sense of being more alone than before September 11th. Even as one such as myself, who has a wonderful wife and three children and an extended family that I love, there is this sense of being alone, out there, in a world that is a lot crueler than I thought at the age of 31.
There is a sense in me, and in many others that I've spoken with, that we're surviving. At least for now. We don't know what's coming. We're surviving. We're sensitive to the changes around us, but we know we have to survive, and some have numbed ourselves, hardened ourselves. To be vulnerable is very difficult right now. And to be open to faith takes vulnerability, and some people aren't willing to do that because we've been burned - some literally - by religion.
[www.pbs.org: Has 9/11 affected your faith?]
RENEE FLEMING, Opera Singer: What I found when I actually reached Ground Zero is that it wasn't at all what I expected. It was so big, i couldn't comprehend of it. I couldn't take it in. I didn't expect it to be so enormous. And then I turned around and I saw the faces of the 9,000 people who had crowded into this extremely narrow space. So many more people came than they had expected, in their grief, trying to find a spot, trying to connect in some way to the site, to what we were doing.
[Fleming singing "Amazing Grace" at Ground Zero memorial]
It was definitely the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, in terms of singing. Normally, I- it's my job and it's my joy to connect to the audience. I had to look up. I just- I couldn't do that. I had to look above the audience because I just knew I wouldn't be able to go on. There were so many people. And of course, most of whom I could see were the people directly in front of me. And it was the children. I think the hardest thing for me- see, I'm going to cry now! It was- I can't- [weeps]
It was the sense of knowing, in many cases, that the people they lost were behind us, just imagining losing a family member in that way.
KIM COLEMAN, Retired NYC Police Officer: Sitting at the memorial at Ground Zero was so somber. And looking at the buildings, and watching on the screen, with the crane digging, and smelling the smell, i kind of felt what the people that were in that building felt. I kind of understood what my daughter may have gone through. And it wasn't a good feeling.
A lot of people were sitting there with masks on. I didn't wear the mask. I wanted to feel the air and what actually was going on down there that day and just imagine it. I just cried. It's hard. It's hard without a body. I- as it was being sung, I just wished she was here. Every day I say I just wish she could walk through the door just one more time.
TERRY McGOVERN, Attorney: I thought, "Why are we here sitting on these chairs, these folding chairs, in front of this horror?" My brother and I and my sister, we felt devastated. We felt devastated sitting there in front of this smoking thing, which was the building that my mother worked in, knowing that she was in there.
So I think this theme of kind of trying to connect to this deeper spirituality in some desperate hope that there's something else - there's something greater - was very much present. And so this incredibly beautiful music actually was extremely comforting. It took us out of the very horrifying reality and transported me to this place of hope that we could aspire for something better, and that perhaps something better does exist, and that whatever was left of my incredibly fabulous mother in that- in that mess was not the end of her spirit.
JOEL MEYEROWITZ: One of the most impossible and memorable images of that day were people leaping out of the windows, being forced out by the fire behind them, driving them, herding them out the windows. And to see that image of two people - co-workers, strangers - I had no idea, but that not knowing made it all the more poignant for - reaching out for somebody's hand to take your last step, that you would end your life in the hands of a stranger, plummeting thousands of feet to your death.
MARGOT ADLER, NPR Correspondent: I think that the power of that image is it doesn't give an answer. It takes us in two opposing directions. On the one hand, we are all alone at the end. Life is fleeting. There's no one to help us when we face the abyss. And there wasn't. No one came for them. And on the other hand, they reached for each other. They said that in that moment when they're facing the absolute ultimate, there are other human beings to reach out, to be there, to help them, to help us.
IAN McEWAN, Author: To me, it just seemed the bleakest possible image of the whole thing. Actually, I couldn't find a scrap of hope in it. What I saw was utter desperation, jumping to certain death rather than dying in pain and fire. It spoke to me of sheer panic, humans brought to the sort of furthest edge of despair. I found no hope in that at all. If there is a God, he's a very indifferent God.
BRIAN DOYLE: A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met, and they jumped. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. It's the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It's everything we're capable of against horror and loss and tragedy.
It's what makes me believe that we're not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them, like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe, against evil evidenced hourly, that love is why we are here.
Monsignor LORENZO ALBACETE, Catholic Priest: To me, that image is an inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what September 11 was all about. The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and of death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It's a choice? It's the choice of September 11.
FAITH AND DOUBT AT GROUND ZERO
Helen Whitney & Ron Rosenbaum
DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH
Amanda Branson Gill
Paul G. Sanderson III
Michael H. Amundson
Bolivar Arellano Gallery
Monsignor Martin Geraghty
Elizabeth Sams at beliefnet.com
Opening images courtesy of WTC: The First 24 Hours directed by Etienne Sauret
Archive Films by Getty Images
BBC Worldwide Americas, Inc.
CameraPlanet Archive, www.cameraplanet.com
Getty Images/The Image Bank
Brian Heller/Al Cerullo - aerial photography
Jim Huibregtse Photography
Journey Films, Inc.
The Mercy Foundation
Jules Naudet/Gamma Presse
NBC News Archives
Excerpt from "Arisman Facing the Audience" courtesy Tony Silver
Trans World Film Italia
The 9/11 Memorial Foundation
The WPA Film Library
Sean Thomas Ackley
Anglo-Australian Observatory, photos by David Malin
Denis Dailleux/Agence Vu
AP/Wide World Photos
(c) 2002 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
(c) 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY
Scala/Art Resource, NY
The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Peter Turnley/Black Star
Skagens Museum, Denmark/Bridgeman Art Library
Christie's Images, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library
Musee d'Art Moderne, Brussels/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, /Bridgeman Art Library
Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany/Bridgeman Art Library
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA/Bridgeman Art Library
Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany/Bridgeman Art Library
Pilgrimage: photographs by Kevin Bubriski, published by powerHouse Books
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Whitney Lawson/(c) The New Yorker, Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS
Evan Fairbanks/Magnum Photos
Allen Tannenbaum/Gamma Presse
Patrick Andrade/Gamma Presse
Yoni Brook/Gamma Presse
Michel Setboun/Gamma Presse
Edwine Seymour/Gamma Presse
Timothy Fadek/Gamma Presse
Robert Stolarik/Gamma Presse
Brigitte Stelzer/Gamma Presse
Eli Reed/Magnum Photos
Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos
Kevin McCrary & The 9/11 Memorial Foundation
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Joel Meyerowitz courtesy of Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery
Bolivar Arellano/NY Post
G.N. Miller/NY Post
Robert Miller/NY Post
Steve Ludlum/The New York Times
Krista Niles/The New York Times
Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, NY
POST PRODUCTION SUPERVISOR
Michael H. Amundson
Erin Martin Kane
FOUNDATION GRANT MANAGER
WEBSITE MANAGING EDITOR
Louis Wiley Jr.
A FRONTLINE Co-production with Helen Whitney Productions
WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.
ANNOUNCER: This report continues on FRONTLINE's Web site, where you'll find a special viewers' poll on the spiritual aftershocks of September 11th, a Web-exclusive feature with Harvard scholar Diana Eck about America's religious diversity after September 11th, links and readings exploring the major themes of this report, FRONTLINE's extended interviews and more. And find out here on the Web site when this program will air again on your PBS station at PBS on line pbs.org or write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to this address [Dear FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]
To obtain a VHS copy of Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, call PBS Home Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$24.98 plus s&h]
FRONTLINE is made possible by the annual financial support of PBS viewers like you. Thank you.
home + introduction + questions of faith and doubt + our religions, our neighbors, our selves + interviews
discussion + producer's notes + poll: spiritual aftershocks? + video
photo © reuters newmedia inc./corbis
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation