Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11...nine years after its notorious designation...the good, the bad and the ugly

What I remember most about that dreadful day is the heartbroken voice of my dear friend Pam on the phone. Had I seen it...did I know...? I was at my desk...and at that point, radio over the internet was a new notion. I had a radio...tuned to CBC.  Candidly, it would have made a small difference as so many of the media outlets had transmission equipment on the towers.

The other thing I remember is the clear, strong voice of the Vice-President who ran our group benefits business.  One of our clients was in one of the towers. A corporate analyst was positting that we might avoid paying claims since this horror was - technically - an act of war. Upon hearing this ludicrous suggestion, our VP leaned into the speaker phone and said clearly, 'I am sorry...I was at my cottage over the weekend. Did I miss the announcement that we had declared war on Manhattan? We'll be paying our claims.'  In the weeks that followed, we amended terms and conditions to cover the paramedics and police officers and firefighters who went to help - much the same way we adjusted wording during SARS to cover quarantine. It made me exceedingly proud of my company and my colleagues and has kept me in their service.

In the days that followed, I remember the silence on the 401. On a normal day, you see the planes once you reach Guelph, Milton, and Missisauga.  They're over your head when they approach from the look up at them approaching from the east.  My night classes started when the planes were still on the ground and the eerie sensation it gave me to drive to class and see no drive home and see no trail of lights hovering in the sky...frightened me. On Thursday when the first planes were back, I pulled over to the shoulder and wept. So did many other people.

I also remember - with immense gratitude - my friends at CBC and The Hamilton Spectator. CBC told the story of the planes all over the country, Gander, Newfoundland particularly. The Spec made it personal telling the story from John C. Munro airport in Hamilton. Surprise guests.  Made welcome and protected so a tragedy wouldn't magnify. Gander was once Canada's welcome point. When planes needed to stop for fuel, the stopped at Gander (as they did in Shannon when they were going east). The horror resurrected Gander - and I do not offer that word lightly in any way.

There is a wonderful saying - those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. It bears repeating today.

The misguided men - and forgive me, but again, I choose that word with specific intent - who committed this atrocity were no more representative of Muslims than Ian Paisley and the foppish pastor from Florida are of Christians. Rather, they are the sad reminder that those who behave with malice and evil in their hearts - and that is most certainly how they behave - do a lasting and destructive disservice to the gentle, thoughtful multitudes who practice the true directives of their chosen denominations. The attention bad actors are rewarded with encourages continuing bad behaviour.

Before I tell you about my friends who are Muslim - whom I am blessed with and whom I am fortunate to know - let me tell you about Catholics. Irish Catholics...Canadian Catholics...and what it's like to be an object of suspicion and derision. If you're a Quebecer or an Acadian or a Metis, feel free to offer your curiously parallel experience.

My father was an Irish Catholic from the south of Ireland. His neighbours in the first house he owned in Canada were - kid you not - a Northern Irish Catholic and a Southern Irish Protestant. He adored them. And his lesson to his children - always and unremittingly - was that intolerance and hate had no place in his house. While he would tell you about just provocation for uprisingings and protests and rebellions - and he did - the notional 'they' whether government or religion or group - was not something to be equated with the nice people next door. Ever. It was an unbelievably valuable lesson and at the time it was offered, I had no idea how many ways it would play out.

My mother, on the other hand, is a Canadian. Even so, being Catholic in a small, largely Protestant community set her apart. When I commented on some lovely tiger lilies - the big, orange ones - she once told me that was what people planted when she was a child to quietly let others know they were Protestant - and perhaps Masons as well.  The notion of marking territory in that way is foreign to me. I don't typically think of Canada as being a country where distinctions are so clearly marked. I am wrong for thinking that way.

A dear friend of mine tells the story of her grandfather's discussion with the school board he served on - within the past 60 or 70 years - when there was objection to adding a Catholic to the board. He believed that moving in that direction was fair and just. It didn't make him many friends at the time.

So that is the experience I share with many of my students. They are, largely, phenomenally educated professionals who have come to Canada hoping for new lives and better opportunities. Many are Muslims (so I luck into that lovely noodle pudding during Eid sometimes!).
Often, they are disappointed. I try not to be one of their disappointments.

I know - to a smaller degree - about being observed with fear and uncertainty. But the stories I heard from both my parents remind me this is a tradition in so many places.

I gave one of my students an article about the fear so many people had about John Kennedy. A writer for Esquire  was combing Texas archives as he researched a book on Lyndon Johnson. What he found astonished him - and not in a good way. Comments about Kennedy as a covert operative seeking to disrupt civilized society. Sound impossible? Change the denomination...and know this continues to be shameful.

For Al Smith who ran for President in 1928 after serving successfully as Governor of New York, the backlash about a Catholic running for President must have been a shock. The story most often repeated - that was whispered about Smith - was that he intended to dig a tunnel to the Vatican and that he'd take his orders from there.

The fuss about a Mosque in Manhattan reminds me a great deal of the fuss about some Carmelite Nuns who once dwelled cloistered at Auschwitz, praying contemplatively for all the sorrows that had gone before.  They were pitched - and let's agree, they were victims of shallow political currents and appeasements on all sides. Not much changes.

My friends who are Muslims - and I have many, as I do friends who are Jewish and Christian, cheerfully agnostic, and uncertain - are gracious, delightful, kind people who bless my life. They are my colleagues, my students, my friends and acquaintances. They are people. Nice people.

For those who like to muse what would Jesus do?- in conversation, and on bumper stickers - the answer is simple: Love your neighbour as yourself. There are no footnotes and there is no opt out clause.

The Rolling Stones had it very right in Sympathy for the Devil. There are so many instances of evil let loose - and encouraged.  Edmund Burke made the point equally well: All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

What so many people did faced with a horror beyond understanding was the right thing. At Gander and Hamilton and other airports, ordinary people made strangers welcome. They fed them and consoled them and took them home and cared for them. Again, thanks to my friends at CBC, we hear some of those stories regularly - about strangers who became the dearest of friends through the saddest of circumstances.

So while I look at this day as a sad one in so many ways, I look at it as an encouraging one as well: a small cadre of men committed a terrible, vicious act...and in response, a selection of ordinary people the world over responded with kindness and care. Evil didn't triumph, nor will it if we continue to beat it down with civility, humanity and decency.

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