9/11: Keeping Vigil

By: Amelia Uelmen

September 11, 2019

Reflecting on 9/11 Across Generations

While in college during latter half of the 1980s, I remember the fascination that the 1960s held for my generation. The events of that tumultuous time were not within our memories, but we were close enough in time to sense how that recent history was shaping our own day. Perhaps for college students of today, the events of 9/11 function as a similar marker.

I experienced the events of September 11, 2001 in a very intense way. I was living in New York City, working at Fordham Law School’s Lincoln Center campus. 

With my colleagues, I watched the towers collapse in real time as we followed the news on a big screen in our amphitheater. Like many New Yorkers, I spent fearful days scouring various networks to make sure that friends and family were accounted for and listening to stories of narrow escape from the inferno. From a friend’s house in the Bronx with a view of lower Manhattan, we watched the smoke rise from the burning site for weeks. 

At the large church next to our school, during a packed liturgy two tall candles were lit in profound prayer for all those who had lost their lives. I remember sobbing uncontrollably as we prayed: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” 

To this day I remain marked by the powerful bonds that emerged from that shared grief. I remember taking the R train from Queens into Midtown two days after the attack. For me the subways had always been a sign of the isolation and anonymity that can permeate life in New York. People are often completely in their own worlds, oblivious to the needs of others. 

But that morning we were completely transformed. There were contests to give up seats: “You sit down.” “That’s okay, you sit down.” I sensed an intense awareness of the other, of their humanity, of the gift that we were all alive, and a profound respect for who might be grieving. 

I had witnessed other moments of individual generosity and kindness before, but never such a sense that we were all making the effort together. I remember on that day wondering if precisely from those dark tunnels that twisted their way under the city, pierced and crushed in parts by immense tragedy, what kind of hope might arise.

How do I hold these experiences and memories in the wake of what followed? Were those incredibly intense days following the attack simply a strange and somewhat artificial reaction to stress? Or did they express something deeper—a more profound longing in our culture? 

In the months, and then years, that followed, hopes for this transformation seem to have been dashed. A politics, and consequently a legal system, driven by fear and suspicion took the upper hand. Scenarios justifying torture, long buried as medieval artifacts, began to penetrate political rhetoric and popular culture. When I had studied in a Constitutional law class a mere ten years earlier Korematsu v. United States (1944), a United States Supreme Court case during World War II that ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps, it seemed more than evident that the analysis was both racist and patently wrong. But in the wake of 9/11, many were not so sure. And suddenly anyone who looked Middle Eastern had real reason to fear not only prejudice, but genuine injustice in police investigations or legal proceedings.

As a U.S. citizen and a lawyer, I wanted to think that my country would have had the vision and courage to emerge from the crisis with a secure sense of how to navigate with honor and virtue this watershed moment in history. Instead the path has been much more arduous. 

I was forever changed by September 11, 2001, and in many ways my whole career in law teaching and community building has been an effort to keep those vigil candles burning. 

I see their light as I work with Millennial and Gen Z students, as they seek out ways to nourish cooperative relationships and spaces to experience a sense of community. They burn brightly in continued grass-roots work in Muslim-Christian dialogue, especially when we face together the pain of exclusion and prejudice. They illuminate my work to probe the implications of prophetic Catholic Church documents such as Caritas in veritate and Laudato Si, both of which emphasize paths to sustain cultural commitments that recognize the oneness of the human family. 

I hope that we can continue to walk in the hope of that light, no matter how arduous the journey ahead.

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