Silent Prayers

If all goes according to plan, at 8:46 am on September 11th, New York City will fall into an eerie moment of silence. It will be a tribute to the dead of that day a year ago, but also a vast, collective re-enactment of the sudden intake of air that occured when we witnessed American Airlines flight 11 collide with the north tower of the World Trade Center. It doesn’t matter where you were when you saw it, whether you stood in the tower’s shadow or in front of the television’s glow: For a moment you stopped breathing.

Accustomed to instant re-plays, we put the moment in cinematic narration, the confusion we felt as we saw the second plane on its final approach, followed by fear, followed by — silence. The second before impact washed clean of sound by our memories; the second when we fully realized that yes, this was really happening; the second during which our minds, despite shock, raced ahead, searching for meaning.

At 8:47, Governor George Pataki will attempt to provide that meaning by reading what in effect has become a state-sanctioned prayer for a secular nation afraid to veer too far from God: Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, “that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.” Along with Pataki on the platform overlooking Ground Zero will be an assembly made up mostly of state Republicans. But during the day a television commercial will air featuring state Democrats offering their own, unique tribute to the dead: another reading of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg.

The prospect of competing readings of a speech intended to memorialize those who died for the cause of union is, in its pettiness and absurdity, an insult to the dead of 1863 and of 2001. The idea that Lincoln’s fierce, visionary words should be stripped of history and dressed up again as a national prayer seems to be a sign of organized despair.

Pataki and New York’s Democrats, perhaps recognizing that they lack sufficient wisdom of their own to rally the people, have instead fallen back on ritual. Nothing wrong there; that’s what funerals are all about. But lacking a religious ritual broad enough to encompass all of the mourners, they have chosen instead to invent a civic one, to claim Lincoln’s words as universally relevant to grief and determination.

But what makes the Gettysburg Address endure is its specifity, its dedication to “those who here gave their lives that the nation might live.” As much as we may want to honor their memories, the victims of September 11th were not soldiers, and they did not give their lives, they were robbed of them; not that the nation might live, but that it would die. At Gettysburg, Lincoln called on the assembly to resolve “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” But the victims of September 11th did die in vain, which is why we pursue their murderers.

Observing a moment of silence is, in the U.S., a true ecumenical tradition, intensely democractic because the temporary absence of words gives us time to grasp the mind-boggling diversity of thought, each mourner offering his or her own prayers to a multiplicity of gods, asking his or her own questions about why the dead are gone. Some will remember the firefighters crushed by the towers, others will think of the Afghan wedding party annhilated by American bombs. In a moment of silence, to whom and for whom each person prays becomes part of the search for meaning. Solidarity with the dead does not demand that we as a people settle on one answer, much less one that was meant as a battle cry.

Pataki’s reading the Gettysburg Address this coming September 11th will be preceded by a processional (bagpipers from each borough of the city) and followed by various individuals reading the names of the victims, the many readers calling to mind a Jewish congregation’s participation in the reading the Torah. In between these elements of ritual, a time has been cleared for silence: the moment when our minds search for meaning. Instead of reviving words from a long-ago war to provide the illusion of closure, let’s leave it at that.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).