Report from Ground Zero

By Neil Earle

Pastor Neil with New York City policewoman.

Perhaps the best news to report from Ground Zero in New York City – site of the terrorist attacks that galvanized world attention last September – perhaps the best news is that my February 24 visit there left me with nothing dramatic to report.

For one thing there were none of the odors or smells that many asked me about, the NYPD guarding the recovery effort were as kind as could be, and New York City appeared to me cleaner and more at peace than at any of my previous visits to that giant metropolis. Certainly one of the lessons of life is that tragedy can bring out the best in us; and my sense of empathy and even camaraderie with the NYPD and the visiting tourists was palpable and I definitely felt the same thing coming back from them. "And on earth, peace, among men of good will" (Luke 2:14).

That is all for the good.

Decade of Appeasement?

On the other hand there would be nothing worse for people in the rest of America or people living in Western democratic societies to conclude that things are so normal that we can go back to where we were in the 1990s. Best-selling New York journalist David Halberstam commented on Book TV in October that if the 1930s could be characterized as "Why England Slept" in face of the rising Nazi menace (the title of a book written by a very young John F. Kennedy) then the 1990s could be described as "Why America Dozed."

1991 New York skyline.

Frankly, the 1990s might well go down in political history as a decade of subtle appeasement against terror. September 11 was a warning that appeasement never works, that we live in a dangerous world and go to sleep on a bomb, every night.

Sure, the US responded to attacks on their embassies in 1998 with cruise missile attacks but they apparently did little in the way of real deterrence and may well have hurt more bystanders than they did the vicious villains who needed punishment. By the time of the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen harbor in 2000 many people were slowly beginning to rouse from the 1990s stupor and wonder what in the world was going on. US Defense Secretary William Cohen had spelled out on a 1996 "Meet the Press" show that Osama bin Laden was the worst threat to US security in a long time.

Of course by 1998 the world was engrossed in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the shameless press jumped in like baying hounds while our world slowly slid towards 9/11.

Still-fresh damage to the Hilton.

It is hard to believe now that we all could have taken the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 – an attack that killed six people and wounded a thousand others – so much in stride. Too much in stride. It was New York, right? Miles away, eh? It's not us, you know what I mean? Then came unprecedented domestic horrors such as Oklahoma City in 1994 and the Colombine tragedy of 1999. Perhaps the human psyche can only handle so much reality after all.

So what is a pastor and a journalist of 33 years experience to conclude from all this?

Frankly, as already noted, it was reassuring to see the giant city of New York so peaceful and serene on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning, February 24. Those alabaster buildings of Manhattan gleamed undimmed by any human tears we could see. Hundreds were good-naturedly lining up for tickets to the observation ramp two hours early. I was able to walk right up to the police barricade right across the street from where the Twin Towers had once stood (my wife and I actually visited the observation deck in 1991). I was struck by the still-fresh damage to the Hilton just to the south – a reminder of how recent these events really were.

But, no big reaction, no emotional wrench. Perhaps we are all somewhat immune to disaster by now; perhaps you can only mourn and grieve so long.

No greater love

So I am happy to report that New York is not Babylon the Great, as too many Christians have called it over the years. New York is a city where firefighters went clambering up 110 stories trying to save people's lives till they could climb no further and in so doing fulfilled Jesus Christ's dictum: No greater love has a man than that he lay down their lives for their friends. They stormed up those towers that memorable September 11, reached out their hands and touched the face of God, I like to say.

Thank God that the human spirit is resilient to tragedy, that God has built into us a kind of psychological insurance that counteracts paralyzing fear. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind," 2 Timothy 1:7 tells us. Yet I could only imagine the temporary panic that must have gripped millions of downtowners in that teeming city as the smoke clouds came cascading down those busy streets. We're only human after all.

Today's New York skyline: Twin Towers conspicuously missing.

I worry that we may be in danger of chalking all this up as a media event, especially those of us out here on the West Coast. In New York it is much more real. My host, Pastor John Adams of the Union, New Jersey Worldwide Church of God, reported a lump in his throat as he drove us across the Hudson and missed seeing those twin towers he had so often observed along the New York skyline. He also passed on that only three weeks earlier the remains of several policemen were found ringed round the corpse of a handicapped person as they tried so hard to save another human life that awful September 11.

Christians know that this is God's creation, God's world, yet it is what Calvinists used to describe as a fallen world, a world streaked with the cancer-like lining of evil and senseless cruelty. No doubt this colossal tragedy has brought thousands of people back to God. For that we can be thankful and we carry on in our business of preaching the Gospel with calm determination and the words of Christian artist Steve Green for inspiration – "The Kingdom unfolds in His Plan/Unhindered by quarrels of man."

This is borrowed form another Christian hymn many will remember:

"Crowns and thrones may perish/Kingdoms rise and wane,
But the Church of Jesus/Constant will remain;
Gates of Hell can never/'Gainst that Church prevail,
We have Christ's own promise/which can never fail."

I have been to one of the gates of hell and yet I can report a definite sense that the millions of prayers for peace beamed in on New York City are being answered. Maybe, just maybe that is what I sensed there in NYC last Sunday. The Bible had it right all along – Love is as strong as Death (Song of Solomon 8:6). Thank God for that!

Copyright © Worldwide Church of God, 2002