Her touch was gentler than anything I'd ever felt before – a tiny hand resting on my upper back. Standing in the middle of a tightly packed audience at Ohlone Park in Berkeley, California, made turning around something of a challenge. And while I was curious about who was responsible for that comforting gesture, I chose to remain still and not disrupt her.
The interfaith gathering I was attending took place on September 11, 2010. It was organized in response to Florida pastor Terry Jones' threat to burn the Quran – a plan he temporarily scuttled, following a wave of public condemnation. Over the course of the afternoon, passages from the sacred book were recited in both Arabic and English. Those readings were augmented by pledges of peace, love and understanding from participants of every color, age group and spiritual inclination. Still, the resulting atmosphere of solidarity and hope couldn't prevent the flow of images from a similarly strikingly sunny day from entering my mind.
I called my girlfriend the moment the second tower was hit. Afraid of a possible attack on the D.C. subway system, I implored her to leave her office – perilously located two blocks from the White House – on foot. As she and thousands of others evacuated the city, I drove five miles from our home in Maryland to an intersection we both knew well. In a chaotic scene straight out of a Hollywood disaster film, we somehow found each other.
Then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan had chosen September 11, 2001, as the day he would announce that the International Day of Peace would be commemorated annually on September 21. It would be, he wrote, “a day on which we try to imagine a world quite different from the one we know.” A day for people around the globe to “try to picture hatred turning into respect, bigotry turning into understanding and ignorance turning into knowledge.”
Emergency workers and civilians at ground zero demonstrated that very spirit with countless acts of selflessness and courage, without any regard for the kinds of differences that often keep us apart. Their actions embodied compassion in its purest form.
In the aftermath of the assaults, however, that sentiment was difficult to find among our political and military leaders. Rather, their messages, marked by words such as “evil” and “retribution,” were nearly indistinguishable from those of our attackers. In the days that followed, I asked myself: Which of these two responses to the tragedy would come to define our country? Two wars and hundreds of thousands of lost and damaged lives later, the answer seems to be clear.
Yet, there I was, nine years later, standing with hundreds of people from all walks of life, brought together by a shared commitment to alter that legacy.
The convocation came to a close with a traditional Jewish song of unity, sung in both Hebrew and Arabic. During the hymn, I could feel that anonymous little hand bouncing on my shoulder as her mother hummed along to the music. It was then that I found myself thinking about the seemingly endless procession of UN Assemblies that have failed to unite its members in the advancement of peace. Reflecting upon the myriad obstacles that have divided so many nations for so many years, I heeded Annan's words and began to “imagine a world quite different from the one we know.”
I envisioned UN representatives beginning each of their sessions by introducing a woman from their homeland, along with her infant child, to a fellow delegate. And whenever one of those sessions appeared headed toward a protracted stalemate, a recess would ensue, providing delegates with the opportunity to contemplate the humanity inherent in each of us – regardless of faith, race, or any other arbitrary distinction.
As that thought flickered through my conscience, I felt the small hand lift from my back. After taking a moment to orient myself to the present, I finally turned around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the diminutive messenger, but she – or he – was gone.
I scanned the sea of faces, but I didn't have a clue who I was looking for. How could I possibly identify which child was the special one?
How could anyone?
© 2011 John J. Morlino, Jr.