Candlelight Vigil Speech after 9/11

Thank you. It is good to see so many gathered here in the embrace of community.

Something life transforming has happened to us. Ordinary words fail us. Yet it is impossible to remain mute ...so I offer these thoughts of outreach as we assemble together....

This candlelight vigil is, by its own definition and by our intention, a remembrance of others - so many others. Our candles soon to be lit — bright and flaming, yet small and all too extinguishable — will burn this wonderful early autumn evening, with many emotions:

There is sadness and grief at the loss we feel - so shocking in its horror, so great in its numbers, and so gripping in its connection to each of us. The numbness we felt first at the sight of flaming towers and crashing aircraft now assumes the reality of names and faces, human tears and family dreams forever torn asunder.

There is anger and rage - perhaps now a channeled rage - but still a rage that wants justice and even dares to say it yearns for revenge. This is a time of wanting to be able to reach out, to do something - to relieve the hurt of those afflicted, and, as our anger rises, to smite those who have brought down this terrible injury.

There is admiration for the breathtaking courage of men and women caught up in the middle of this terror. The courage of firefighters and police who did their duty, and in so doing lost their lives. The courage of those aboard one of the aircraft who may have prevented an even greater catastrophe. And now the courage of those who lost friends, loved ones, family, as they struggle through the long, aching and all-consuming moments that have become the present measure of their lives.

For many of us, perhaps most of us, there is the awakened sense of personal vulnerability - that the distant terror we read about in the daily paper can now become a terror we experience in our daily lives.

As my wonderful wife, Lynn, said to me so sadly this morning, "We can't go back to Monday." We can, in fact, never go back to Monday.

Now we all live in a different place with a different sense of vulnerability, a diminished sense of security and the frightening knowledge of a tectonic blow to our landscape of hope.

With rare exceptions, our nation has been free from outside incursion, free from threat of enemy attack and violence for nearly 200 years. Now we have lost, if not our innocence, perhaps our sense of invulnerability.

And while it may be time that this was lost, that we recognize that the daily dangers of the rest of the world are our dangers also now ... yet its murderous intensity is far too much.

The randomness of these deaths also is unsettling, reminding us, as it does, of both our personal and our national insecurity.

There is a sense we all share, not only of the horror and tragedy of the past days, but of something new and frightening - something that may not have touched most of us directly, but that we sense could touch us all. It is new, it is deadly, it is random and it lives in the dark shadows of anonymity.

In a time of great national crisis, perhaps the greatest our nation has known, Abraham Lincoln reminded the American people of their ability to call on "The better angels of our nature."

Today too, we can do this if we will.

Today, right now, we can decide to live more consciously, more fully, more richly.

Today, right now, we can give this personal vow in tribute to those whose lives were so cruelly cut short.

Today we can choose, in the light of what our candles mean, to take another's hand, lift another's burden or simply acknowledge another's worth.

Today we can newly consider that word "love." Not the possession of a single religious belief. Not a cheap nor a shallow emotion debased by commercialism and popular entertainment, but the most risky, profound, yet fragile glue of our common humanity. Love illuminates the often hidden paths of who we are. It finds ways for our paths to connect with the paths of others, and it allows us to - live - not alone, but with others.

Well into his life, John Adams, second president of the United States (and so much more) wrote in a letter to a friend:

"I sleep well, appetite is good, work hard, conscience is neat and easy. Content to live and willing to die ... Hoping to do a little good."

Even today, that wonderful aim - "hoping to do a little good," can guide us through and beyond the smoke and dangers of today.

This also is a time to call again for moral clarity. A time for us not to be ashamed of our values. A time to understand even more clearly what we believe ... and proudly to affirm, live and act upon those beliefs.

What values? What beliefs?

  • Values that assert that there is such a thing as a difference between good and evil - that good and evil things exist and that we choose in minute and major ways, where we will stand amidst them.
  • Values that condemn a fallacy and horrendous conceit among those who believe their god directs them on the road to personal salvation through a field of slaughter of the innocents. Values that reject this unspeakable conceit as pure and blinding evil.

This is a time for us to probe our values, to connect what we say we believe with what we consistently step out and do. It is deeper than flying the flag. But in these days it also can consist of flying that flag - not as a symbol of jingoistic nationalism, but as a clear historic symbol of the world's most enduring constitutional republic securing individual liberty - the liberation of the human body and the soaring freedom of the human spirit.

This act of terror was deliberate. This act, as our president and others have said - was an act of the first war of the 21st century. It is a product of the ghastly chemistry of apocalyptic visions and murderous tactics.

It was an act of terrorists who would have us live in fear, who would seek divisions among us. These are two things we can renounce right now ... we will not live in fear ... and we will not give moral cowards victory by letting their atrocities sow division among us.

We are "One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." And it means as much now as it did when we said it in grade school so many years ago.

As I remarked earlier, we cry out for justice and even admit to aching for revenge. But we must not, in the name of either, in the cause of retaliation, become fanatics ourselves. To do that is to lose the war. The sword of our retribution must be finely honed and carefully wielded.

Many years ago, in a letter to one of his friends, the writer and editor E.B. White wrote:

"As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness."

... so tomorrow morning we wind our clocks, and we do begin a new day. And while we most probably will not celebrate as we have here in past years, with that joyous sense of carefree abandon and unfettered release, we can gather in the solidarity of human souls bound together.

We can take hands of our neighbors ...

We can enjoy the voices of our friends ...the warmth of their handshake and the comfort of their embrace

We can treasure another day with our families and loved ones ...

And we can choose throughout to keep the memory of the flaming candles we will hold before us as a solemn reminder of what it is we aim for together, struggle for together, live for together on this small green planet ... what it is we truly celebrate.

Thank you and God bless America.

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