At breakfast in the cafeteria at Wheaton College on that Tuesday morning, someone I knew—I don’t even remember who—mentioned something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. In my mind I envisioned a tiny Cessna accidentally clipping the building. Didn’t think much of it. If this had happened in later years my phone would have been buzzing with texts and tweets telling me of the event’s magnitude. But this was 2001.
By lunch, I had seen it all on TV. Horrors my 18-year-old college freshman suburban self had no prior paradigm for. Planes full of people crashing into buildings full of people, collapsing them onto even more people. People on fire jumping to their deaths from heights unimaginable. The Pentagon attacked. Another plane down in Pennsylvania. Reports of a fire on the National Mall. Rumors that the Sears Tower was also targeted. In that moment, the worst was possible, even expected. What other disaster movie fictions would become reality before the day was done?
Anything seemed possible. And indeed, in the days and years that followed, we’ve come to expect more 9/11s. We became jumpy, addicted to “breaking news” alerts, ready for the craziest of crazy things to happen. Everything was interpreted through the lens of 9/11 and terrorism. The D.C. snipers, the Anthrax scare, Iraq. And even if 9/11 part two didn’t happen, there were plenty of reminders that the world was as unsteady and calamity-prone as that had day proved. A terrorist trying to blow a plane up with a shoe? Happened. Coordinated bomb attacks on public transportation in major European cities like London and Madrid? Check. Dirty bomb or biological warfare attack on a major American city? It only seemed to be a matter of when.
Beyond terrorism, we watched as natural disasters unfolded in unprecedented ways: Katrina’s destruction and its accompanying politics, the Asian tsunamis, the Haiti earthquake, etc. We watched the stock market collapse in a week. We watched wars unfold in the Middle East. We watched unemployment rise and the recession linger.
Am I a member of the “9/11 Generation?” I don’t know. But the day certainly altered my view of the world. 9/11 happened two weeks into my college career, two weeks into my life as an independent adult. The post-9/11 world has been my paradigm of adult life. And what does that mean for me?
I think it means that no calamitous event really surprises me anymore. It’s expected. The Norway shooter from a few months ago? Egregious. Evil. But entirely expected. Countries like Iceland going completely broke? Of course. A freak virus unleashed on the globe that turns us all into zombies? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Where does this attitude leave us? With a healthy recognition of our smallness and of the fragility of life. I think it humbles us and, at least for me, leaves me praising God for his bigness and thanking him for every breath, recognizing that it’s only by the grace of God that I survived another day in a world so ever-armed with death and destruction. Maybe 9/11 and its attendant “I’m small and a big God is what I need” reality check had something to do with the revival of Calvinism. Who knows.
But expecting calamity is only half of the story. The other half is hope. Since 9/11, I think there’s been a revival of interest in eschatological hope... not necessarily hope to escape this troubled world, but hope to renew the brokenness of the present age in whatever way we can.
The daily possibility of 9/11 style disaster could easily cause us to say “the End is Near!” and certainly many have jumped to those “we must be in the end times” conclusions. But 10 years after 9/11, the world is still coping, still hoping, still working, still here. Just as 10 years after Rome fell, the world pressed on, and a generation after the Plague wiped out half of Europe, people still laughed.
I think it’s possible to simultaneously expect the worst and hope for the best. Maybe this is what the Christian life is about, actually. Between the calamity of the cross—so visceral, so always in memory—on one side, and the conquering hope of resurrection on the other, we exist as believers. We deal with the worst of times, grieve, suffer, but know that better is coming. Sometimes better is close; sometimes it’s far.
In the meantime, we live by grace.