My 9/11 prayer: The lessons we can learn from the great silence | Friday Morning Coffee

We squandered the opportunities of 20 years ago. We still might in the pandemic. It’s not too late

September 10, 2021 7:10 am

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 11: The ‘Tribute in Light’ memorial lights up lower Manhattan near One World Trade Center on September 11, 2018 in New York City. The tribute at the site of the World Trade Center towers has been an annual event in New York since March 11, 2002. Throughout the country services are being held to remember the 2,977 people who were killed in New York, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
For this final column of the week, the one that comes the day before the 20-year observance of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, I want to tell you a story.

Two decades ago, my sister was teaching English at the Hosaka English Academy, in Numazu, Japan, about two hours southwest of Tokyo.

Sometime in the dark hours after the attack, as the entire world was struggling to make sense of a tragedy that was nearly incomprehensible in its scale, the mother of one of my sister’s students came up to her.

Reaching out her her hand, and mustering up what English she had, the woman looked at my sister with deep sympathy in her eyes and just said, “New York … so sad.”

It was a tiny gesture of humanity from a stranger, but one that still looms so large in its attempt to bridge the distance of language, geography, and culture at a time of great pain.

I was texting with my sister recently about this faraway memory, one that’s threatened to recede, like so much about that horrible day, into the realm of myth.

There were “so many small acts of empathy,” my sister recalled, adding that they took on an extra dose of poignancy because so many who offered them “couldn’t speak English” but found a way to close the gap anyway.

I recall feeling then that, with the entire world in our corner in those weeks after the attacks, we were being presented with an incredible opportunity as a nation, as a planet, to finally move past the petty things that divided us, and walk together into a better future.

Naturally, we blew it. A police action in Afghanistan turned into an abortive, 20-year-long attempt at nation-building that cost trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. A war of choice in Iraq shattered an already fragile nation, and allowed an even more pernicious terror threat to take root.

It was, in all, a uniquely American brand of hubris. We compounded those failures across decades, and across administrations, until they reached their inevitable conclusion in our chaotic exit from Afghanistan last month.

The rest of the world turned its attentions elsewhere.

About 100 Trump supporters rallied outside the Virginia Department of Elections in November for a “Stop the Steal” event (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury).

We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided in so many ways in the years since, from the microtargeting and gerrymandering of brutalist presidential campaigns, to the social media confirmation bias that’s carved us into warring political tribes staring at each other over the trench line.

Those divisions were exacerbated over the last four years to the point that some among us don’t even live in the same reality. The commonly agreed-to set of facts that provided the underpinning to our civil and political debates, has seemingly vanished.

Pandemic denial. Vaccine denial. Mask denial. Climate denial. Pernicious 9/11 trutherism. Birtherism. The odious and cowardly Sandy Hook denialism. QAnon. The myth of the stolen election and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

With the knowledge of a million Libraries of Alexandria at our fingertips, we’ve somehow gotten dumber instead of getting smarter.

Instead of trusting in experts, the know-nothing howl of “Do your research,” echoes across the land. We consider the efficacy of bleach to treat the coronavirus. Some of us wolf down an anti-parasitic intended for horses.

The entrance to the Appalachian Trail in Halifax Borough in Dauphin County, Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Last April, as the virus was just starting its rampage across the country, I expressed the cautious hope that we wouldn’t squander, as we did after 9/11, another opportunity to “to rethink how we do everything,” to finally become the country that we should have become two decades earlier.

More than 650,000 dead Americans later, and amid renewed class tensions, and an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, my faith was shaken to its core.

And this week, as I’ve watched the steady upward track in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, I’ve been filled with the same rage and sense of futility I felt at the start of the pandemic, when the curve of the virus began its relentless climb upward.

Now, of course, more of us are vaccinated. Most of us have sense enough to wear masks. But too many resist both — even though both have been proven to be effective in preventing infection.

After 18 months of trauma and death and disruption, you’d think we’d know better. Too many of us still don’t.

I’ll close by telling you my own 9/11 story.

A few days after the attacks, I was driving over one of the bridges that links Harrisburg to its western suburbs in Cumberland County. I remember thinking then, and still do now, that the whole world had gone quiet. The cars didn’t make a sound as they sped over the bridge. We were all too shattered to even speak above a whisper.

In that silence, I thought, maybe we could listen to each other, that we could finally see what bound us together, instead of what tore us apart. But we didn’t listen. We didn’t see. We squandered the opportunity.

We had the same chance in the great silence of the pandemic. Rifts that not enough of us had recognized were exposed, begging for attention, for healing, and for justice. We’ve made progress. But not enough.

So here’s my prayer on this 20th observance: That we step up and honor our obligation to protect and care for those in the dawn, the twilight, and the shadows of life (to tear from a very famous page). That we turn inward to really listen to each other, without turning our backs on the world. That we emerge from the great silence of the pandemic to finally create a country that’s inclusive and welcoming to all, and one that lives up to its aspirations for real equality for all of us.

That we do it so that, someday, when a stranger on the other side of the planet stretches out their hand, it’s not in sympathy, it’s in solidarity.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
In our ongoing series of interviews with the 2022 gubernatorial aspirants, Stephen Caruso talks to GOP hopeful Charlie Gerow, a veteran political operative and TV pundit.

A Pennsylvania Senate committee launched an investigation into the state’s two most recent elections on Thursday, beginning with guidance issued by the Department of State the night before Election Day, Marley Parish reports.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, is recovering from injuries he suffered in a motorcycle accidentCassie Miller reports. The Allentown lawmaker was previously injured in a crash in 2015, according to the Morning Call of Allentown.

A newly released ‘Citizens Map,’ put together by a good government reform group underlines the challenges of redistrictingStephen Caruso also reports.

State health officials confirmed 4,197 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, down slightly from Wednesday’s tally of 4,391 new infections. But hospitalizations increased, as did the number of people in hospital intensive care wards, I report.

Three redistricting hearings slated for later this month have been rescheduled to accommodate the House’s early return to Harrisburg, Cassie Miller also reports.

Aurora, the autonomous vehicle startup founded by ex-GoogleUber, and Tesla executives, announced Thursday that it has named Pittsburgh as the site of its official corporate headquartersCorrespondent Kim Lyons reports.

On our Commentary Page this morning, massive COVID-19 infections, not the vaccine, are responsible for new variants, two University of Pittsburgh experts write. And the scales of labor are getting a long-overdue rebalancing. It’s time for businesses to face this new reality, columnist Roger Chesley, of our sibling site, the Virginia Mercury, writes.

Former Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell (WikiMedia Commons).


Former Gov. Ed Rendell is targeting a ‘treason caucus’ on Capitol Hill that includes U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th DistrictClout reports.

The Post-Gazette explains the loophole allowing some Pennsylvania students to duck the mask mandate.

The lawsuit challenging the state’s mask mandate is being backed by a group that challenged the 2020 election resultsSpotlight PA reports (via PennLive).

Two Lancaster County school districts have added ‘grace periods’ for students to comply with the mask mandate, LancasterOnline reports (wasn’t that the last 18 months?).

A teacher and football coach in the Northampton Area Schools has died of COVID-19, the Morning Call reports.

Former Lackawanna County school director Frank Scavo has pleaded guilty to his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, and faces six months in prison, the Scranton Times-Tribune reports (paywall).

Parents in Philadelphia are outraged over ‘rampant’ trash in schoolyardsWHYY-FM reports.

In a special report, WITF-FM and NPR explain how the twin histories of Gettysburg and Flight 93 are intertwined. looks at the redistricting fights that already are getting rolling in state courts.

City & State Pa. talks to officials in Somerset County about their Flight 93 memories.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will visit the Flight 93 Memorial on Saturday for 9/11 observances, PoliticsPA reports.

The U.S. Air Force is taking a ‘hard look’ at racial disparities in its ranks, Roll Call reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:


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What Goes On
12:30 p.m., Capitol Steps: Mexican Independence Day observance

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
8 a.m.: Golf outing for Rep. Jim Marshall
11 a.m.: Golf outing for Rep. Frank Burns
Hit both events, and give at the max, and you’re out a ridiculous $7,000 today.

Gov. Tom Wolf heads to York County for a 1 p.m. event announcing vaccine clinics at five state parks.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Best wishes go out this morning to Harrisburg attorney Lisa Marie Benzie, who celebrates today. Best wishes go out in advance to regular reader Jess Baker, who celebrates on Saturday. Congratulations all around.

Heavy Rotation
For a lot of us, ‘Touched,’ the 2001 solo LP by Ken Stringfellow, of The Posies, turned into a de facto 9/11 survival document. I’ve written before of the impact it had on me. As I do every year, I’m sharing it with you again.

Friday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link
It’s not exactly the Second Coming, but it might as well be. Striker Christiano Ronaldo makes his return to Manchester United this weekend after an international break. The Guardian has the details.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.