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This page last updated 4 April 2014  

an essay for Anglicans Online
11 September 2011

Remembering, and looking ahead
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

It has become commonplace to ask, “Where were you on Nine Eleven?” Ten years ago, my response reflected the reality of that day for most Americans; we were doing mostly ordinary things:

As winged terror fell upon America, I was at an IKEA furniture store north of Paris with my wife and daughter. We were there to look at furniture for our move to that city in November, as I prepare to assume in January my new duties as Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.

This is how my first column as bishop opened. Re-reading it ten years later gives me a strange feeling, for like so many other people around the world, Nine-Eleven changed my life. One minute I was an obscure priest laboring in Florida, the next I was preaching at the American Cathedral in Paris, live on CNN, no less. I was, all of a sudden, The Bishop, giving fifteen interviews to French and American media (my predecessor was in America at the time). I was acutely aware, that though my consecration was still two months away, today was the day that I had to deal with a major world event…even though I had never done that before. Never imagined such a thing. Welcome to your new job, Kid.

For my hastily-composed homily on the 12th, in front of the TV cameras, I had in mind the closing sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

It seemed possible that this terrible event would offer an opportunity for our nation to be “touched by the better angels of our nature.”

But there were also in my mind the words of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who is supposed to have said after Pearl Harbor, “We have awakened a sleeping giant and have instilled in him a terrible resolve.”

Better angels, sleeping giant … How about sleeping demons?

And that is what I ended up saying: “We might be touched by the better angels of America’s nature, or our sleeping demons may reawaken. One thing is certain: there will be a choice to make.”

The tenth anniversary calls on us to reflect on the response of America and her allies. How do you think we’ve done over the past ten years? I often wonder.

After the Eucharist and the interviews, I went outside to thank the heavily-armed contingent of French police protecting us gathered inside the American Cathedral that day. I found the commander and said how much we appreciated their presence. He stiffened, as such a compliment in France is not done. “We only did our duty,” he harrumphed. I replied gently that we had 400 police officers in New York the day before, who were only doing their duty. The man suddenly began to weep, as did the others around him. I gazed at these tough men, their machine guns, body armor and helmets. And their tears. “We feel so badly for our colleagues in New York!” he said. “What happened to them is our nightmare — the terrorists hit a monument, we respond, and a half-hour later they strike again to kill as many of us as possible.” “So you see why we especially wanted to thank you today for being here,” I said finally. They started to smile — we understood each other.

The better angels were certainly at work on Nine-Eleven. We now know the value of police officers and firefighters to us all, and the heroism that so-called “ordinary” people are capable of.

And the demons started to howl, too. That night a man was shot and killed in a convenience store in Arizona because he was wearing a turban. Didn’t matter that he was neither Muslim nor Arab — his killer didn’t know anything about Sikhs. He just wanted revenge.

On September 12, 2001, we used the readings of the previous Sunday. The Gospel is Mark’s stories of Jesus’ healings of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter and a deaf man. Here is our duty to be done today and tomorrow, lifting up for all people the remedy for our torn hearts. For the healing of America. For the healing of the world.

Ten years later, America is still sorting out which will dominate, our demons or our angels. They continue to wrestle in my own soul. Personally, I am betting on the angels.

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at