Of all the stories from recent days commemorating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the one that affected me most powerfully belongs to Vaughn Alexx.
Vaughn was working at the ticket counter at Dulles airport fifteen years ago, when two men arrived late for their flight. Always attentive and helpful, Vaughn got them checked in quickly and helped them to their gate at the last minute. They later hijacked the plane and flew it into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.
In the weeks and months that followed, as he contended with the role he’d played in the world-changing events of 9/11, Vaughn was consumed by a fog of anguish and remorse. Though he knew intellectually that he’d done nothing wrong, he somehow felt he was responsible for everything that happened that day.
All the destruction, all the loss, all the suffering, it was because he didn’t stop it. He let it happen. Because he took the tickets of the killers, he couldn’t shake the feeling that all those people died because of him.
Many of us have been in close proximity to some tragedy, some god-awful and unnecessary turn of events, and wondered if a small change in our actions at a critical moment could have prevented the worst from happening.
I heard Vaughn’s story on the radio, and I’m sure others who were listening felt as I did, wishing I knew him, wishing I could speak to him, wishing I could take the guilt and the nightmares away:
It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do it. It’s alright, friend. It wasn’t you.
Of course, I don’t know Vaughn, but I’m sure there have been people around him saying these things over the years. Unfortunately, heartache doesn’t listen to reason, and none of us can talk a loved one out of their sorrow.
Thankfully, Vaughn is in a much better emotional place today than he was for years, but he describes his healing process as long and gradual. That’s how it usually goes with tragedy - you don’t arrive at an epiphany moment when you ‘let it go’. You take it day by day, and over time you realize you’re going to be okay.
But there’s something I heard in Vaughn’s story which I hope never fades, even as the attacks are absorbed into personal and national history. The thing I hope he holds onto is central to his pain, so keeping it will ensure a certain amount of never-ending hurt. But I believe it’s worth it, and I’d wish it for all of us.
Vaughn’s torment came from his understanding of how connected we all are. He knows how important each person is, both in how our small and specific actions affect things much greater than us, and also how the lives of all the different people affected by an event are equally valuable. All the people Vaughn checked into that flight were as precious as his own family and friends. That’s what makes the loss hurt so bad.
I want this openness to pain to stay with Vaughn, and I want it in my life, as well.
Because our capacity for the kind of pain that Vaughn has felt these past fifteen years is an important indicator of our readiness for peace and prosperity in a new day. The tenderness toward strangers that makes us fragile in the face of their harm or hardship is simultaneously the human resource most indispensable in our work for justice, peace, and the healing of the world.
People only haunt you when they matter to you. We can only thrive in community when everyone matters.
There are times when this feels like a raw deal, that access to community and purpose would require the possibility of heartache and grief at any turn, but such is the nature of compassion.
Something that’s often said about the days just after 9/11 is that the country was united then, and we’re terribly divided now. It’s not just that we’re stratified according to our disagreements, it’s that there’s a fundamental distrust prevalent in people now – a cynicism in the culture and a suspicion of others that seems different today than at other times. I’m not sure how accurate that diagnosis is, but there is an ideal people point to in remembering 9/11, that we took each other’s humanity for granted and saw one another as neighbors more easily after the attacks.
Our shared pain is indeed an opportunity for connection, and a means of understanding that, truly, we’re all in this together. But of course, the more severe the pain, the more we want to push it away, the more we want to make sure we never feel it again. I can’t help but wonder how the divisions we see in our society now may be attempts to protect ourselves against the pain that always comes when we value each other as precious, blessed, children of God.
This pain is only a threat when we really love, and when we are truly alive.
The Table is a community of Transformation:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith