Ten years ago, I was sitting with three friends in a pub in Carlow, Ireland, eating lunch. En route to Dublin to fly back home the next day, we’d meditated earlier in the morning about what had transpired only a year before. As we ate, Sky TV showed then President Bush and others reading the names of those lost to the terror of 9/11. Suddenly, the sounds of this busy restaurant ceased and for a full 60 seconds, not a soul moved, stopped in their tracks. The same scene played itself out across the Republic of Ireland, in every hotel and restaurant, a nationwide observance of a moment of silence in respect for not only those lost in the tragedy, but for all Americans, including the four of us. It was a while before we were able to swallow again because of the massive lumps in our throats.
I had asked a young hotel clerk earlier in the week what he had thought about it all and he said that, of course, he had been shocked and dismayed, but that in the waning hours, he had thought, “Well, now they know how it feels.”
Of course, he referred to the fact that he had grown up in the days before the truce, when an IRA bomb was as likely to go off as not. He had lost friends, perhaps relatives, in the longstanding conflict, and had, I’m sure, coveted the sense of insulated ignorance we had enjoyed.
I would think about the moment in Carlow and this young man every day for a while, trying to remember when, if ever, I had stood for a moment of silence for the victims of tsunamis, of earthquakes, of hurricanes, of those killed at the hands of true tyrants and despots. I finally despaired of searching, because I could remember no such moment of honor except for the long habit of Southerners to pull to the side of the road and stop in a show of respect for those passing behind a hearse.
We are brothers and sisters in the greatest nation in modern history, a nation at a crossroad, not unlike that we encountered 150 years ago. The battle lines are different in technicality and quite varied, but they are the same. Everywhere, one group of people gives lip service to equal rights for all citizens, yet seeks to control the behavior of others, establishing laws that cannot be enforced and will accomplish nothing of substance, refusing to engage in conversation that might yield a better way forward for all sides. Wasn’t that the point of democracy?
As Ben Franklin famously once said, we must hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately. It will take more bravery to do so than we have shown thus far, and a capacity to love our neighbors as ourselves that seems curiously lacking in a nation that publicly proclaims itself as under God, but only as long as our 401-Ks are secure.
I find myself looking around in restaurants these days to see who may be close by before I dare to speak in more than a hushed tone. And I remember another restaurant a decade ago, and I am strangely embarrassed.