Hendrik Hertzberg, Pankaj Mishra, and Serene Jones
Remembering Forward Ten Years after 9/11
Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker.
Serene Jones serves as the 16th president — and the first female president — of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She is a minister ordained in the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ. Her books include Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, and most recently, Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World.
Pankaj Mishra is an Indian journalist and author of several books, including An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times and the British newspaper The Guardian.
September 8, 2011
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: How did 9/11 change us as a people? What are we just understanding now? And what is the inward work of moving forward with enduring grief and unfolding understanding? I explored this in a public event at the edge of Ground Zero with The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones.
We gathered with a live audience in the round at St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Wall Street. This was the center of care and rest for recovery workers in the immediate days and months after 9/11.
From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: “Remembering Forward: Ten Years after 9/11.”
MS. TIPPETT: Thank you. It’s a real honor to be here in this place which became not just a symbol, but really the practical heart of the ennobling human responses of care and generosity that marked those immediate post-9/11 days. But it’s also — and I became more and more aware of this today as the hour drew near — that it’s a heavy, weighty honor to be in this place in this week. And I’m very pleased and comforted to be joined up here by three people who I deeply admire.
I agree with someone else’s characterization of Hendrik Hertzberg that he is one of America’s most necessary voices. And what I so appreciate is, whatever his subject is, he brings to it not just intelligence, but a dignity.
Pankaj Mishra, in my mind, is one of the wisest thinkers and writers on any continent. He is exquisitely insightful and eloquent in interpreting the rest of the world to the West and also at looking at America from the outside in.
Serene Jones is bringing Union Seminary, this august American and New York institution, and the important work of theology into the 21st century. And this year, she’s also been working with clergy on how they are going to preach on this September 11th Sunday.
So the title for this evening, “Remembering Forward,” is a play on one of my favorite phrases from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where the White Queen says, “It’s a poor memory that only works backwards.” I’d like to say a little bit about how — I want to put some brackets around our conversation. We are not going to debate things we can’t change in that spirit of remembering forward, facts on the ground, wars entered into, policies or enemies pursued. Though, of course, we may touch on these things as we reflect on what I do hope will be our focus tonight of our common life, civil society, our public life, which is much bigger than politics, although I think we often collapse our imaginations about that phrase to political life, public life.
I was not in New York on September 11, 2001. I was in Washington. And I felt at the time, and I still feel now, that there was a huge aspect of that experience which we Americans as a people and as a nation scarcely pondered together or even let ourselves take in, even knew how to take in, and that is 9/11 as an experience of mortality and frailty and vulnerability, vulnerability in our strongest fortresses.
Now this, of course, is an elemental and universal human experience, but it happened on that day with a magnitude that was almost incomprehensible. But I would like to start there and, Rick, as I looked back at a piece you wrote just in the days after 9/11 and also a year afterwards on the first anniversary, you used the same phrase. You put two words together: grief and dread. I thought that really brought home to me, you know, the absolute gravity of those two sensations together and also the kind of strangeness of that experience.
HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Well, they certainly did go together, and even though these are universal experiences and the idea of vulnerability is universal, we’d never really felt that here. And we felt it very, very strongly that day and even more so in the days afterward because the dread took a while to settle in and the grief took a while to settle in too because, at first, it was just incredulity. It was fear. It was as if your senses had been altered in some odd way so the colors were different and sounds were different. And, of course, the simple sound of an airplane, which was a daily, hourly sound, took on this new and chilling meaning.
It changed New York, certainly. New York kind of joined the world and joined the country. Those two things happened. You know, New York in an odd way, we were almost not proud exactly, but when America was attacked, it was New York that was attacked and, at least for a while, it was as if New York and America were synonymous. That was a new feeling too.
MS. TIPPETT: And, Pankaj, a lot of your thinking and writing in the last years has been a similar parallel point that, in fact, that experience of grief and dread and calamity also acquainted Americans with an experience that many people in the world live with even on a similar scale much of the time.
PANKAJ MISHRA: Yes. You know, I was in India when this atrocity happened here. I was in my little village up in the Himalayas where I didn’t have a television. And I walked up to my landlord’s home who did have one when I first heard about this and asked him if I could open his television and see this. It was evening there, and he refused because he could not really make a connection between what I was describing to him. I was trying to stress upon him the importance of New York, of America, the significance of the Twin Towers, but he could not absorb this. He was this man in a village, and terrorism or violence of that kind was too commonplace for him. Too much had happened. Too much violence had happened in India over the last three decades. I mean, tens of thousands of people have died in, you know, terrorist attacks, and communal riots and various insurgencies across the country. So he could not share my sense of shock.
At the same time, you know, it was — I certainly felt — and I think I was like a lot of other people who knew New York, who knew the United States, and we felt a sense of violation, which a lot of people here felt. We also felt that. That here was a country, here was a city that miraculously had been untouched by this kind of violence. And, in fact, this whole idea of America that we cherished was also, you know, one has to recognize was this idea of American innocence. We all believed in it. So it was also felt, that sense of violation, by people elsewhere. And people also felt that grief at seeing that kind of atrocity being committed upon a country that had not, you know, confronted that kind of atrocity before on the homeland — on its homeland.
MS. TIPPETT: You quoted a writer, Don DeLillo, saying “Parts of our world have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage,” but the fact is, our worlds were already connected, but this moment brought that home in a very tragic way.
MR. MISHRA: I think so. I mean, I think we all live in this very interdependent world and have been living in it for a very long time. It’s just in the fact that some people have been more aware of it because they have been at the receiving end of history. They have been the victims for a long time. So a lot of people living in what were once colonial countries are very aware that the destinies, or fates, of those countries were decided in some other part of the world, so they had to be very aware of those parts of the world all the time. So there’s been a strange disconnection between the experiences of the modern prosperous West and the rest of the world, and I think 9/11 and, of course, subsequent events brought those incompatibilities to light in a very harsh way.
MS. TIPPETT: So I was remembering, Serene, several rabbis and preachers in those days after the attacks reading the beginning of Lamentations to me, the Book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible. It felt so present. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people, how like a widow she has become that was great among the nations.” Our traditions are ancient repositories of dwelling with vulnerability and crisis and grief, trauma, and inviting humanity to make sense even in the midst of those experiences. Some of the writing you’ve been doing recently is noting that all the wounds of that day haven’t been healed now and that new wounds have been inflicted both here and abroad. And you ask this question: How then can we memorialize something that’s still happening?
SERENE JONES: Yes. In fact, teaching at a seminary, trying to prepare ministers for sermons in a congregation, it’s been very interesting to talk with students about what trauma does to peoples’ psyches, what it does to communities, to open up the Bible and have the poetry of trauma right there before our eyes, and to be reminded that that level of trauma and, in a way, it’s not just vulnerability. It is vulnerability in the face of overwhelming violence. That’s not just a general grief or a kind of decay or undoing. It’s a shock that one’s life and story falls apart. But that has long been history as red in tooth and claw, a part of human history. And the ways communities deal with that have varied enormously, but it must be engaged or it festers. And that’s one of the challenges, I think, is how does one engage it in a way that you don’t in any way glorify it, trivialize it, but also not make a spectacle of it that will in the future exacerbate its presence? It’s one of the challenges that we face on this 10th anniversary.
MR. HERTZBERG: I think one of the things, something that was in a way almost as shocking as the attack itself to me, or at least surprising, was the way that the world expressed sympathy and compassion for us. I wouldn’t have expected that because, for the very reasons that this trauma was so shocking to us because it was so unknown to us, and I’m not sure that our reaction over the — I think we were made to realize or perhaps I’m only just realizing it at this moment — how relatively little we have reacted to like traumas around the world with this sort of — this seeming wonderful kind of spontaneous outpouring. I mean, despite your land, all over the world, Iran. That was part of this ennobling moment that happened in the immediate wake of 9/11 and was the comfort, was the greatest source of comfort.
MS. TIPPETT: I think you wrote about the solidarity as a gift of 9/11.
MR. HERTZBERG: Yes. And it was solidarity among ourselves. It was solidarity of the country. It was solidarity of people who hate New York out in the Heartland, the heartland of the homeland. And it was solidarity of people who were totally unlike us elsewhere in the world feeling this sense of solidarity with us. I guess one of the reasons why it’s been such a dismal decade since then was the way that that sense, that feeling, was squandered and disappeared. I really question how much we have learned, the kind of compassion that was directed toward us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being. Today, a public conversation at St. Paul’s Chapel on the edge of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. I’m with The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones.
MS. TIPPETT: I’ve been interested to hear from friends who are in the field of psychology recently that there’s a whole new understanding of grief. We’ve been through this period where we identified stages of grief and this notion of closure, something that you achieve at the end of it. And the understanding now, and I think also in part coming out of the experience of 9/11 and families, is that in fact grief is something that stays with you. So I think then the question for us as collectively also, if it’s not closure that we’re seeking, if that’s an unrealistic goal, what is then the thing that we are aspiring to, that we might work towards?
MS. JONES: Yeah, grief is of all the emotions the hardest because it is never resolved if it is grief. The loss never stops being a loss. But then this is where the religious traditions have I think much to teach us. When grief becomes mourning, that act of mourning is inevitably tied to a community’s articulation of what they hope for — to be able to name what was lost and to truly get it in your gut some sense of what wholeness would look like surrounds it. And so, you know, grief is not about some how over coming the pain but it is — can be a reminder of when one loses a spouse for instance what the love that was there that was so enlivening and giving — life-giving — was about. So I think that’s a very strange connection between hope and grief.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, in the lead up to this we asked our listeners and online community this question of what we’re just understanding now. And I think before we open this discussion up, I want to read something that came in from Matt Riddink from Cold Spring, New York.
So he was born in 1973 and he said: “What are we just understanding now about the story of 9/11? I think it’s that we are all stumbling our way through — through this life without certitude to this point. The moral clarity we were supposed to have gleaned that day has given way to a moral fog. It has taught me that the righteousness of the American experiment is not a given and that we must constantly reexamine and re-earn that righteousness.” Which is a very intriguing idea, the notion of re-earning righteousness, Serene, to your image of imagining what wholeness would look like.
MR. HERTZBERG: And buried in that comment is the assumption of righteousness. I mean that this is something that we have — that we use to have.
MS. TIPPETT: That we had and have lost.
MR. HERTZBERG: That we had and have lost. But maybe we need to take it a little step farther than that, without getting into the endless, awful, idiotic arguments about American exceptionalism.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. HERTZBERG: Where do we get off trying to go back to this Edenic past, where we were good and perfect and whole. Wouldn’t it be better if we learned that we were never there?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. JONES: When I think in terms of how we tell the story about who we are as a people, it’s a version of what you were just saying. It’s a very different story to tell that of America. We are those people who in the midst of overwhelming violence and the devastations of life have the capacity to face that in a kind of realism that gives way to cooperation potentially. Or to have a sort of illusion of righteousness, which says we are an innocent perfect people, who when faced with some enemy will always conqueror it and end up innocent in the end and two very different American stories, very different.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve talked about repentance as a notion that is important for you a theological — a spiritual virtue. Just would you say a little bit about, you know, what repentance might look like beyond the political realm? We could talk about — we could talk about repentance in a political sense as well but none of us sitting here tonight can actually effect that in the immediate future. So what would that look like in the life of a citizen?
MS. JONES: Well to repent literally if you take the Greek version of it is to be turned around. It is to reorient one’s gaze, one’s direction. And to repent requires naming what one is turning away from, so that the turning happens in that sense. And we really have yet as a people to honestly name the reality in which we’re living right now. I think it is part of the underlying tensions that are — give rise to the animosities we face in a political context. So repentance requires first a naming and then in that hovering space around it a willingness to look in another direction.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I think this would be a good moment to open the discussion up. I’m so aware of all the things we haven’t touched on that one might touch on. And you can well I hope you will all now introduce some of those subjects into our discussion.
BOB SCOTT: We have some questions here and the ushers are still collecting them if you have more. First one is, “What spiritual practices can we turn to as we move forward as individuals and as a society?”
MS. TIPPETT: Pankaj, I’m curious how you would answer that question, because you’ve done such interesting writing about the Buddhist thinking also in terms of social life.
MR. MISHRA: I think suspicion — maybe this is not a very spiritual way to think about this but certainly the Buddha would prescribe a suspicion of abstractions of intellectual concepts, you know. I think one of the things that happened after — soon after 9/11 is that we were really unable to see it in the sort of right kind of context. We were so quick to, you know, pronounce on the event and to build up this sort of huge ideological clash between Western liberalism versus Islam fascism and how, you know, the democratic West now needs to spread, you know, freedom and democracy around the world.
These kinds of abstractions that the Buddha certainly advise and the Buddhist tradition advises against, which really have very little connection with lived reality, with ordinary lives. And I think one of the things that I take from the last 10 years is really a sort of suspicion — a necessary suspicion of these idea and these concepts we have to constantly keep challenging and maybe that’s a form of spiritual practice. So I think that’s — that’s really been important for me in the last decade or so.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you want to say anything about spiritual values?
MR. HERTZBERG: Well, I think if — I think there are a lot of people listening to this conversation far from this room, who might say, well, what are they talking about? We’re suppose to repent because — because 3,000 of our fellow citizens were murdered by terrorists? What’s for us to repent about that? So you have to take it — you have to kind of get 9/11 is an occasion and this anniversary is an occasion for meditation and thought. But there’s no simple straight line between we were hurt we must repent. We should —we certainly must repent and we had reason to repent on September 10, 2001 and we have reason to repent now and we had reason to repent in 1860 and we had reason to repent in 1700. And to the extent that we repent, all well and good. Was it our fault? Was it our fault that this terrible thing happened to us? I don’t know.
MS. JONES: I think one of the powerful things about the notion of repentance is that it does not require individual culpability. In the tradition, it has more to do with what happens when you recognize the stain that violence, that brokenness, leaves in the community. So it’s more about how a community understands itself facing and the reverberations of violence in our lives quite apart from any sense of whether we earned it or caused it are nonetheless there. They just live in us.
MS. TIPPETT: If you’re just tuning in or would like to listen to this show again, go to our website, onbeing.org, and download the MP3 for free. And while you’re there, watch the video of this full 90-minute public conversation in St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan. Again, that’s at onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “Who Do We Want to Become? Remembering Forward: Ten Years after 9/11.” I explored this in a public event at the edge of Ground Zero with The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, and theologian and Union Seminary president Serene Jones. We gathered with a live audience in the round at St. Paul’s Chapel of the historic Trinity Episcopal Church of Wall Street. This is where George Washington prayed after his inauguration. And in the days and months after 9/11, St. Paul’s Chapel became the hub where 14,000 volunteers and rescue workers received round-the-clock care, refuge, and support. Bob Scott of Trinity Wall Street is moderating questions from the audience.
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s take another question.
MR. SCOTT: “How do we humanize our grief instead of glorifying our hurt?”
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s let that one sit.
MS. JONES: This question of humanizing our grief, I think, is a very important one. And part of humanizing grief is to refuse to make grief pretty and to make grief face into some moment of closure. And as everyone has been talking these last couple of days about the most appropriate way to memorialize this event, there is nothing appropriate about grief. It does not come to this moment where we do it right. And I think a willingness to be in that space of the chaotic and the unmanageable that is grief is part of that healing.
MR. HERTZBERG: I’ve been reading a lot about the Civil War lately.
MS. TIPPETT: I thought you might bring that up.
MR. HERTZBERG: And the Civil War was a gigantic trauma. The Civil War was a gigantic moral drama, and yet we learned the lessons of it very fitfully over time and with a lot of backsliding. And I think it’ll be that way for the set of experiences that we group under the heading of 9/11 that, if we’re lucky, it’s three steps forward, two and nine-tenths steps back. So we can’t expect a steady movement toward clarity. And we’re going to have peaks and troughs and, with any luck, each peak will be a little higher and each trough will be a little lower, but there’s no guarantee of that.
MR. MISHRA: I’ve been thinking of another war, probably fictional, which is described in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. I mean, it’s an extraordinarily subtle story, but the basic sort of morality tale there is essentially that you have this great war between two sides, one of which has justice and virtue, you know, behind it. It’s the wronged side. It’s the side to which violence has been done. Yet, as the war proceeds, this virtuous side turns until it starts to resemble the other side, and the war ends in this calamity. It destroys everything. It destroys families on either side. It destroys towns. It destroys villages, cities, and there are no victors in this war. There’s only the survivors in this huge wasteland.
I think what the epic very powerfully shows is this sort of ambiguity of human action and this sort of complex web of motivations that go into, you know, things like war and particularly pursuing justice through war, pursuing justice through violence and how that can turn into — very quickly — into its opposite and you can end up dissembling your antagonists more than you ever realized, more than you ever expected.
MS. TIPPETT: Something that’s disturbed me right from the outset is the language of enemies that actually cross the liberal-conservative divide. This doesn’t belong to one side or the other. The notion of hunting down terrorists, which we’ve just become so used to that language. It is that ancient danger of engaging with enemies and becoming like them. Let’s take another question.
MR. SCOTT: “Where do the panelists look for insight and wisdom? Who do they read? Where do they turn?”
MS. TIPPETT: Who do you read, Hendrik Hertzberg? [laugh]
MR. HERTZBERG: Oh, I read a lot of blogs.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah [laugh]. Don’t say that.
MR. HERTZBERG: No, I’ve gotten a lot from reading Lincoln’s speeches in the last couple of years and from reading Leaves of Grass. But, you know, I read a lot of journalism and there’s been some really, really good journalism in the last 10 years that was triggered by 9/11, really, really good journalism. But you’ll have to ask elsewhere for the works of art that I take comfort in are mostly older. They’re mostly pre-9/11, but not pre what 9/11 did to us.
MS. TIPPETT: Pankaj, you’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about how we’ve processed 9/11 through literature. I feel like that’s just actually becoming more and more intense right now and probably will be in the years to come.
MR. MISHRA: Well, I think that there’s — there’s been a problem with a lot of literature produced after 9/11 in the sense that we’re so accustomed to thinking of literature as something about the private life, about the inner life, and it’s extremely difficult for a novelist to deal with such a big public event and trauma and disaster like this. I suspect this is a problem that will remain as long as people keep fixated on the event itself and don’t look at the aftermath or the kind of, you know, strange period that we’ve all lived with in almost every corner of the world.
You know, there are so many stories that have yet to be told. The other day, I was in Pakistan, and somebody told me about these 2 million refugees that had poured out of this area where the Pakistani army was conducting counterterrorist operations, in Swat. These 2 million people came out of there and, at the end of the operation, they went back. And while they were out of their homes, a few of them were being sheltered in United Nations UNHCR refugee camps. But a majority of them were being sheltered, fed, by ordinary people.
I sometimes think why don’t we hear more of these stories not just in fiction, but also in a nonfiction in journalism? We know Pakistan is a failed state or is a failing state. Why don’t we think about these kinds of traditions of coexistence, of cooperation, that allows a society like that to absorb 2 million refugees on the move?
MS. TIPPETT: I have to say that I limit my consumption of journalism or I’m more selective about it than I used to be, because — precisely for this reason. It’s not telling us the whole story. It’s telling part of the story, sometimes well, sometimes badly, but we have to look in other places. I mean — and I think we should mention the Arab Spring in this context. Who knows how that’s going to unfold?
But we were not trained by our political leaders, our pundits or our journalists to see anything but breeding grounds for terror on Arab streets. And it turns out that Arab streets could also be breeding grounds for dignity and democracy and the same kinds of longings — in fact, a narrative that Americans know very well. And that actually gives me hope. This realization that we are too shortsighted, that we simply don’t see the whole picture at any given time, that history will surprise us has a terrifying dark side and it has a very hopeful side if you can lean into it. Serene, who do you read?
MS. JONES: It’s embarrassing actually [laugh]. Most often I read two people: John Calvin [laugh] and I find him theologically provocative, but also a thinker who in the middle of a huge global shift was trying to make sense of the world around him and the best he could do was stay awake. So it’s fascinating to grapple with a mind struggling to stay awake. Then paired with Calvin, I love a Moroccan novelist and essayist Fatema Mernissi, who’s a feminist writer, but also a traditionalist trying to make sense of gender and race in the midst of the Arab Spring and that traditional society. I find the two of them very similar in the way that they wrestle with how we need order and how we need disorder at the same time and how hard that is as a professor of seminary students to help people learn to tolerate both of those.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t think it’s just seminary students who have difficulty with that juxtaposition.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being. Today, a public conversation at St. Paul’s Chapel on the edge of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. I’m with The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones.
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s just have one more question, I think.
MR. SCOTT: “Voltaire said that doubt is an uncomfortable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one. How much of the toxic incivility of our politics is a misguided search for certainty? Please speak to the theological notion of certainty and faith.”
MS. JONES: Shall I speak to the notion of …
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, you shall. You’re the one who’s read John Calvin most recently.
MR. HERTZBERG: I think theological is your cue.
MS. JONES: Yeah. Well, faith would not be faith if it was entirely certain. I mean, the whole activity of belief is one in which one throws oneself is grasped by something that one does not entirely comprehend. That’s part of the beauty of it. On the other hand, I do think that, at the end of the day, there are some things that I as a person of faith am certain about and that is the fundamental equality of all humanity and the relentless love of God. I draw back from this notion that there’s nothing that we can be certain about. Those certainties make a huge difference in how you engage the world.
MR. HERTZBERG: Well, I have a much more earthbound take on that. I mean, if what the questioner is asking about is the atmosphere, the kind of civic atmosphere of the United States at the moment, I think there’s a broad crisis in our system of governance that has been there in one way or another from the beginning and we’ve had a lot of room, we’ve had a lot of margin for error over our history, and that margin of error has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed. And a lot of the nastiness and of the kind of certainty that I think the questioner is disapproving of is a frustration and a fear that arises from this larger, you might say, constitutional crisis that our country is going through. And we kind of take refuge in going after each other because the problem is a little bit — we’re not quite ready to face that larger problem.
MS. TIPPETT: And to the point of this evening, where does 9/11, the fallout of 9/11, factor into that? Has it — do you think it accelerated something that might have happened anyway, or intensifies it? Do you think naming 9/11 and the fear of that as a factor could be part of a more redemptive civic conversation? I don’t know.
MR. HERTZBERG: Well, part of the sort of sense of dread that lingers has to do with these endless wars that we’re in, some seemingly with some justification and others not. But we feel ourselves, as you were saying, stuck in this pattern. So it’s not so much 9/11 as it is the aftermath, the hangover of 9/11. 9/11 was something we look at as a kind of a diamond of hope, that the horror of that day and the solidarity of that moment and the humanity of that moment, 9/11 stands as a hope more than as a source of despair.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a pretty remarkable statement.
MR. HERTZBERG: Surprised I made it [laugh].
MR. MISHRA: I think — I mean, I think that hope is renewable. In fact, you know, it was renewed, if you remember, in 2008. There was again this universal surge of interest in Barack Obama’s election. Everywhere people were expecting, hoping, that this will inaugurate a new era altogether and, once again, you know, whatever suspicions, distrust, hatred had built up over the last seven or eight years, it was amazing how quickly it dissipated. And suddenly, even in countries with which the United States was at war, there were large numbers of people thinking, well, you know, something might change. There could be another moment just as there was a moment after 9/11.
I think, despite the disappointments we’ve suffered since then, I mean, I still think that possibility still exists. You would need a very farsighted leader who has — really who can see the possibility in this huge reservoir of potential goodwill that exists out there and act on the basis of that and not, you know, let oneself be sort of led along by these huge machines, these systems in place. I think it’s a very difficult thing to do, but nevertheless, that possibility is always there. And we’ve seen it realized twice in the last decade.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I expected this conversation to surprise me and it has. Again, there’s a lot we haven’t touched on, but I think I leave here with an expansive sense of time, of even maybe the presumptuousness 10 years later of making sense of something. There’s something hopeful and comforting in that. I — you know, I think to finish, I wonder rather than asking for closing remarks, I’d love to ask each of you to pose a closing question that we all just take with us, a closing question in the context of this question: Who are we now? Who do we want to become after this shared experience? Did I stump three of the most brilliant people I know? [laugh].
MS. JONES: All right, here’s a question.
MS. TIPPETT: All right.
MS. JONES: In moving forward, how do we attend to the power that what we know but don’t know we know has in our lives, the world of our unconscious lives and bodies? How we do engage that dimension of this hoping and dreading?
MS. TIPPETT: And behind that question, is there the idea that we knew a lot on September 10, 2001 that we didn’t know we knew? Or just that we maybe haven’t lived into the knowledge we have after this experience?
MS. JONES: I think 9/11 lives in our bodies and it lives in our collective unconscious in ways that reverberates constantly and gives shape to things relentlessly. Yet it’s the most difficult part of it to get at. So when we talk about the ideas, we talk about the politics, that quaking space underneath it all is very hard to engage and yet that’s where life happens. That’s a real question I don’t know how one digs into that earth.
MR. HERTZBERG: Can we fight through the miasma and find our way to some kind of light? That’s the question I ask and I’m not expecting an answer, at least not today.
MS. TIPPETT: Fight through the miasma and find some kind of light.
MR. MISHRA: Likewise. I mean, I think breaking this extremely increasingly irrational momentum, we’re kind of all sleepwalking. We’re just going along. And again, I mean, the question raised earlier in this conversation about how do we convert just these very simple and widely shared values of sympathy and compassion into political action or maybe even geopolitical action, you know? I do think this is an important question to ask ourselves, moving away from kind of the conventional, traditional notions of statecraft, realpolitick. I think of the reality of this globalized world and how do we make something positive out of this? Otherwise, we just have people who are neighbors and are constantly exasperated, irritated, angry with each other all the time. Yet, as we’ve seen, there are moments when they feel this common humanity, and how can we turn this into something — something lasting, realize it in political institutions of some kind?
MS. TIPPETT: And that brings me back to a question that Dorothy Day asked. I think she was maybe four, six or eight when the San Francisco earthquake happened. She saw something very similar to what people saw in this city on September 11, this outpouring of care. And she asked, why can’t people live this way all the time? And in a sense, she had a very real flawed messy human life, but in a sense also, throughout that life, she lived her way into that question.
Well, thank you so much, Pankaj Mishra, Serene Jones, Hendrik Hertzberg, and thanks to everyone for coming here tonight.
MS. TIPPETT: Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor at The New Yorker.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World and Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond.
And Serene Jones is president of the Union Theological Seminary of New York City.
The public event that became this show took place on the rainy Tuesday night of September 6th in New York City. At onbeing.org, you can listen again, download it, and share it with others. You can also watch our entire, unedited discussion on our website. Find that video and much more at onbeing.org.
This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.
Special thanks this week to Bob Scott, Linda Hanick, Reverend Jim Cooper, and the entire staff of the Trinity Institute.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time, a Palestinian philosopher whose family has lived in Jerusalem for 1300 years. To a new moment of Middle Eastern tumult, Sari Nusseibeh brings perspective — a vision of caution and hope planted in a long view of Arab and Palestinian history, culture, and time.
Please join us.