Ten years ago, I was living in the LDS Missionary Training Centre (MTC) in Chorley, England, near Preston. I arrived there in early September at the beginning of what was to be a two year proselytizing mission for the Church. While I was at the MTC, I was assigned to live and study with a ‘companion’, the first of more than a dozen young men I was to live and work closely with for the next two years. My companion was Hinsermu Gemechu Wariyo, an Ethiopian from Addis Ababa, who like me was living abroad for the first time in his life. While we were in the MTC, we spent most of our time reading the LDS Standard Works, studying what were then called the ‘Missionary Discussions,’ a series of 6 doctrinal lessons that we were charged with teaching interested contacts in our ‘mission field,’ and trying to develop skills and attributes suggested to us by a spiral notebook called the ‘Missionary Guide.’ We left the MTC compound briefly once a week, on Tuesdays, to buy groceries and to play soccer. Tuesdays were known as our Preparation Days (P-Days), since it was on that day that we were expected to do all of our shopping, laundry, letter-writing, etc., in order to devote the remaining six days to our missionary efforts.
On Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, I traveled with a small group of missionaries to an ASDA grocery store in town, where a few of us heard rumors of a plane crash in New York from local British patrons while standing in the checkout (they had recognized our accents, and wanted to share what was probably breaking news at the time). We returned to the MTC, shared what we had heard, and waited for the next group to return from their shopping. As the day progressed, and more and more missionaries returned from their daily shopping, small rumors began to spread through the MTC about what had transpired in the United States. For most of my mission, I kept a fairly regular journal. Here is the entry from my journal at the time (exactly as written) for Tuesday, September 11th, 2001:
Tuesday, September 11
Tonight we learned of the terrible tragedy that has rocked America. Two planes were hijacked and crashed in the NY Twin Towers and a 3rd was crashed into the Pentagon and a 4th crashed into the Pennsylvanian forest. There were over 260 people aboard the 4 flights and probably thousands more killed. My heart is heavy with sorrow even as I write this. Tonight we had a meeting and President Jensen [an older American man and Vietnam veteran who was our ecclesiastical leader and with his wife, was responsible for our training and wellbeing in the MTC] spoke to us about it and then we heard many questions and then we closed with a prayer. He asked me to give it and I did. I was powerfully touched and guided and directed by the Spirit of the Lord as I gave that prayer. I spoke of many things of great importance to me and asked for forgiveness and peace to rest in my and our hearts and comfort and knowledge of God and of the Saviour and Redeemer to all men. And I asked for all hearts to be touched and comforted and turned to good. I felt directed also to pray for the families of the victims in their sorrow and loss, but also for the victims that they may learn of God’s truth and be comforted and also for those who planned and carried out the attacks that all the people of the earth and even those who labor in and under darkness and hatred would soften their hearts and turn to God and know that he is and be forgiven and seek forgiveness and exercise faith and be humbled and repent and be embraced and embrace others in brotherhood, sisterhood, friendship, and love. I wept often through the prayer for God and especially for the love of God and the power of his Spirit touched my heart and directed my words. I am very happy to be alive and to be where I am in the Preston MTC and to have the knowledge of God that I have and to have the love for my fellow men that I have, but most of all to know that I have not learned these things of myself, though I learned them for myself, nor of men but of and from and by the power of God. Please bless and comfort and calm the world tonight and all the people distressed and affected and afflicted by the disasters today that thy love, O God, may rest upon them, and be perceived by them and that they may be healed and comforted and converted. Amen, book and amen.
Obviously, I read this entry now with mixed feelings and some embarrassment. While there are some ideas expressed in it that I can no longer in good conscience stand behind, I do still yearn for greater peace and forgiveness, for a certain broad quality of mercy and consideration extended to all, and feel especially fortunate that I was equipped to think of mercy, peace, and forgiveness, even for the then unknown perpetrators of shocking violence at a time so close to the event itself. What’s most striking to me about this entry, however, is that it’s the only time that the events of September 11, 2001 register themselves on my recorded conscience for the next 10 years (they never again appear in my journal entries or elsewhere in my writing).
When President Jenson made his announcement about the events of the day, he showed a short (3-4 minute) film clip from the news with the events–an exception to official mission policy, which stated that we were not to watch television of any kind, and we discussed the events for a few hours that evening and the next day. I didn’t leave the MTC until late September, by which time the only visible reminder of the events were the ubiquitous newspaper inserts in the windows of so many English homes with American flags and a message that read something like: “We support you.” Occasionally, people would ask us what we thought of the ‘towers falling’ on the street or on their doorsteps, but once they heard that I had only seen a few minutes of footage of the event and didn’t know a whole lot about what had taken place, they quickly lost interest in me as a Yankee curiosity. To this day, my relationship with “9/11″ (a term I have an inexplicable but virulent dislike for, incidentally) feels peculiar, and I feel deeply aware that I did not participate in any significant way in a shared, collective experience that was so important and momentous for nearly all of my peers and fellow citizens of the United States. I have never felt any desire for vengeance or retribution, nor have I felt an especial desire to punish guilty parties for the events of the day, and my desire for justice and the cessation of violence and needless suffering feels the same in this case as in any other. During the 5 year anniversary ceremonies, I saw a few minutes of a documentary film on PBS, but I did not fully engage nor was I particularly hungry to know more. On the whole I discovered that I could not appreciative either the tone and tenor of the televised festivities (for lack of a better word), and consequentially, I completely disregarded the 10th anniversary of the events this past weekend, bypassing media (audio, visual, and printed) entirely on that day.
For me, the question of my ‘memories’ of September 11, 2001 is almost wholly irrelevant–I have almost none–no significant encounter with any form of media or visualization of the events, response, or aftermath. I did not hear any of the political rhetoric or national mourning immediately following the event, saw few public expressions of grief, and read next to nothing about the event, its significance and causes, and how it was projected to change the course of history, as it were. In fact, I have a much more clear memory of sitting in the home of three African men that we had befriended in Newcastle and seeing video footage of green tracers being fired at night into the Iraqi desert in March 2003 on their small 10” television set and feeling disbelief, awe, and deep dismay at the grim visual evidence of war and destruction carried out by young men and women from my own country of origin. A man named Paolo had made us dinner, fu-fu with peanut soup, and I remember how my hand draped over my knee, pausing over the bowl, unsure of whether I wanted to continue eating, whether I could stomach anything while watching scenes of real destruction on their television set.
About September 11, 2001 and its meanings and many griefs, I have little to say that is not banal. I do not think that there is any healthy way to discover that a war has begun, or that planes have been intentionally flown into buildings, or that cruelty, fear, and hatred have been unleashed, given form, and embodied.