On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was standing in the bathroom of my apartment outside Chicago, about to hop in the shower, when I heard the phone ring and then my husband call my name.
“It’s Roger from the desk,” he said, sleepily, invoking the name of the morning assignment editor at the Chicago Sun-Times where I was a reporter at the time.
I padded down the hallway in my pajamas to the living room and picked up the phone.
“How quickly can you get down here,” Roger asked.
“I dunno, an hour, maybe,” I said. “Why? What’s up?”
“A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York,” he said. “They think it’s a terrorist attack.”
“What?” I shouted.
“Turn on your TV and get down here as soon as you can.”
The hours that followed Roger’s phone call still play in my mind like a horrible slide presentation. Throwing on clothes and bolting out the door, screaming over my shoulder for my husband to please call my best friend in New York City to see if she was ok. Driving in a panic through the West Side of Chicago toward the newspaper offices downtown, while listening to reports from Manhattan on the car radio and scanning the sky over the city’s skyscrapers for airplanes. Praying for divine intervention, for the horror not to be true.
I vividly recall parking my car on the top level of the garage across from the Sun-Times building and stopping to stare at the Sears’ Tower a few blocks away. “Oh my God,” I prayed aloud. “Please protect us.”
When I arrived in the newsroom, my first assignment was to pitch in making calls to police, transportation departments, the FBI and other civil authorities to get logistical information about the immediate emergency. But soon, as the paper’s religion reporter, editors asked me to write something that would address the spiritual implications of the unthinkable disaster that was unfolding on the East Coast.
The only thing I could think to do was to phone a number of religious leaders of various faith traditions and ask them the question that I heard so many people asking that terrible Tuesday morning: Why would God allow this to happen?
My favorite answer came from William Persell, who was then the Episcopal bishop of Chicago. He said, “I see God operating through all the courage, the love and the support people are giving each other as they drag bodies from buildings and as they minister to the wounded and the bereaved across the nation. I ultimately believe that love is more powerful than the evil we have experienced, and it will prevail.”
In the end, yes, love wins. That is true.
But the truest answer I received came from the venerable scholar of American religion, Martin Marty, who told me, matter-of-factly, “I don’t know, and nobody does.” Ten years later, Marty’s answer remains the best.
In 2001, when I was the 30-year-old wife in a double-income-no-kids-one-cat family, the only person I had to answer that question for was myself. A decade later, however, as a mother, I am responsible for helping my son, who was six weeks shy of his second birthday and living in a village in sub-Saharan Africa at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, grapple with that same unanswerable question.
My son arrived in the United States a little more than two years ago, and while this year’s Sept. 11 anniversary is his third in our country, it is the first for which he’s actually been aware of what transpired at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.
The issue first arose a week or so ago when we were watching television and a commercial aired for a forthcoming 10th anniversary special on the 9/11 attacks.
“What is that?” my son asked. “Did that really happen?”
Yes, I answered, explaining briefly what happened 10 years ago, not anticipating the logical question that followed.
“Why?” he said.
Although it seemed to placate my son’s curiosity at the time, my answer, in retrospect, was feeble at best.
The people who turned those airplanes into weapons of mass destruction were crazy. Sometimes people are so filled with hatred and fear that they do terrible things.
While true, those statements provide little wisdom or solace. And they really don’t get at the eternal problem of why — a question that is ultimately about the nature of good and evil and God.
I suppose I could have tried to explain to my child how the United States is viewed by some people in other parts of the world, about the power paradigms, religious zealotry, tribalism, foreign relations, economics, cultural perceptions, historical perspectives and so on.
But none of that truly gets at the heart of the matter. None of that explains on a soul level why bad things happen to good people, why the innocent suffer, why there is hatred in a world that my son and I believe was created and ordered by a loving God, a God who promises to be powerfully present in our suffering.
Still, none of those responses satisfactorily answer the WHY.
If I have learned anything in the decade that has passed since terror became a visceral part of our daily reality, it is to be comfortable and satisfied with not knowing.
When my family sits down to watch the 9/11 memorial specials that will air in the coming weeks, I hope to impart that difficult truth to my son. There are some things in this life that we never will understand.
“I don’t know,” is sometimes the only true response. That uncertainty is not only OK, it’s sacred.
Because the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s certainty.
A version of this column originally appeared via Religion News Service.