|On September 11, 2002, Rev. Herman Keizer, Jr. spoke at a memorial service in the Calvin chapel. He shares his remarks with us here.||
Terror – God With Us
The words of Psalm 46 did not come readily to mind or on many lips on September 11, 2001. That day we were witnesses as terrorism cast its lethal shadow across the American landscape. An unbearable pall of killing and maiming spread like the dust of falling skyscrapers. The World Trade Centers became helpless piles of devastation and rubble, a tomb for hundreds of people. The Pentagon, a symbol of America’s military might, was set ablaze by the aviation fuel of American Flight 77 as it crashed into the West Side of the building. The men and women of United Airlines Flight 93 knew that they faced more than a hijacking, took heroic action and caused their fight to crash into the Pennsylvania woods.
These were not moments that we felt the assuring presence of God as our refuge and strength. It was difficult to muster the assurance of praise: “Therefore will we not fear.” We were seeing terror and rage in ways we had not imagined. We felt shock, surprise, and terror as we watched buildings burn and crumble to dust.
I was at the Department of State that day working for the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. One of my fellow workers reported with great distress that a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We turned on the television just in time to see the second plane hit the South Tower. We gasped in disbelief and horror. We knew America was under attack. Then the alarm sounded and the warning system told us to secure our classified systems, lock our safes and leave the building. The Department of State had received a bomb threat. As I left my office, I looked out over Arlington Cemetery and saw black smoke and huge flames coming from the Pentagon.
Washington D.C. was chaotic. Other Federal buildings were also being evacuated. People’s cars, parked in closed, sealed buildings were inaccessible to them, so many had no transportation. They fled to public transportation and overwhelmed it. Those with cars began to head out of the city only to find bridges and roadways closed. People with cell phones were making calls to loved ones and sharing phones with others who needed to contact their families. Soon those systems were overloaded. Frustration, terror and fear were the emotions of the day.
I began to walk toward the Pentagon. I had been scheduled to make a presentation to the Joint and Unified command chaplains following lunch that day. I had many friends in the Pentagon, having worked there off and on for more than half of my Army career. The place where the plane had hit was where the Army Chief of Chaplains had his office before the renovation and was very close to the area where I had my last office. The Army Deputy Chief of Personnel, a good friend LTG Tim Maude, had just moved into his suite of offices on the West Side of the building. Those thoughts and memories sent a chill down my spine.
As I walked, I felt like I had lost my voice. I felt paralyzed into silence. I was numb and speechless. I did not know what I would see or say when I got to the Pentagon. I knew that it would not be pretty. Several times, Military Police or other law enforcement officers would stop me and inform me that the roads were blocked. When I showed them I was a Chaplain, they let me pass, telling me that I probably would be needed. That heightened my sense of foreboding.
When I got to the Pentagon, I saw many people I knew and was relieved that many were not injured. Lines were forming to go into the building with litters and bring out wounded and dead. Before we could move, they evacuated everyone from the building because another plane was en-route to Washington. That plane crashed into Pennsylvania.
I was asked to help set up a morgue. The Mortuary Affairs officers and I briefed the people on what we needed to do. We described some of the things they might be seeing and we set up the area. We had prayer.
I listened to those standing and watching. Some writer said well what I was experiencing that day, “The lexicon of shock, already thumbed thin, simply ran out of words.” We were experiencing the bloodiest day on American soil since the Civil War and the most devastating international terrorist attack in history. Commercial aircraft used against unarmed, defenseless civilians tested the limits of language. Our ability to kill had outstripped our ability to talk.
The heat of the fire was still too hot for people to enter the building and bring out dead, so they told us to stand down the Morgue. Refrigerator trucks were on the way and they would be used once the heat subsided.
In the numbed stillness, I experienced what the Psalmist said, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I saw and heard the power of selfless sacrifice, in the quiet heroism of the men and women in the Pentagon. I heard how a female Lieutenant Colonel had led my friend Lois Stevens and several others to safety, how another friend, a Colonel, had helped several of his co-workers out of the building. I saw people helping strangers who were hurt or emotionally distraught. I saw people willing to put themselves in danger in the hope of helping someone injured or bringing out the remains of the dead. I saw many Good Samaritans that day and very few Priests and Levites.
I went into the center courtyard of the Pentagon, where several of us chaplains talked to the firefighters and rescue crews. We read Scripture with them and prayed with them. They were thankful for God’s protection each time they came out of the heat of the burning building. I listened to Navy personnel thanking God that the plane hit in the newly renovated portion of the Pentagon. They were thankful that many people had not yet moved into their new office space. They were thankful for the blast-resistant windows, weighing 1,600 pounds each, and for the super-strength polymer mesh used to reinforce the walls and to prevent pieces from flying off like deadly shrapnel. One Navy Captain told me that many more of his people would have died and been seriously injured had it not been for the new re-enforced construction. He thanked God for what the builders had done to ensure the safety of his people.
“Come and see the works of the Lord,” see how in the midst of darkness, terror, and despair God lets us know that he is God. In the middle of the blazing Pentagon, God was exalted, His name was praised.
The next day, I went back to the State Department. We worked on many issues of security. The Secretary of State was on the phone with countries expressing their sympathy and support. Lists were being compiled of the nations who had lost people in the attack on New York City. I received a call from the Chief of Army Chaplains asking if I could work as the chaplain representative in the Army Operation Center that night. I took the list of nations with me. During the course of the evening I showed the list to a General Officer friend of mine. He was surprised. He asked that I share the list with the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Army at the morning briefing. The list brought home to the folks in the Pentagon that this was more than an attack on America. The Trade Centers were indeed the World Trade Centers.
During the night, I walked outside and got very close to the gaping hole in the Pentagon. The roof was still burning and the aviation fuel would periodically re-ignite. Chaplains from all of the services were inside a secure area working with the rescue workers and representatives from the FBI. There were many young people seeing some terrible sights as they entered the building to mark and recover bodies. The terror was gone, but the numbness of loss was everywhere. Present was the solidarity that comes from a shared experience that was life-changing. Rescue workers would see the cross or the tablets on the uniform and stop to talk. They wanted to talk about and to God. They had questions about evil and terror. For many, faith and belief in God were on the line.
Terrorism has been with us for a long time. The terrorist threat is global in scope, many faceted and determined. The World Trade Centers had been attacked before, in 1993, but not in as spectacular a manner. In 1996, the Khobar Towers in Dhahran ,Saudi Arabia, were truck bombed. In 1998, American embassies had been attacked in Kenya and Tanzania. One of our naval vessels, The Cole, had also been victim of a terrorist attack in the harbor at Aden, Yemem. But September 11, 2001 gave an American face to Global Terrorism. International Terrorism now had the face of New York City, Washington D.C. and the woods of Pennsylvania.
The Department of State publishes a list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. In August of 2002, 34 organizations were on that list. In May 2002, the State Department published it sreport, “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001.” In the introduction to this report, Secretary Colin Powell states, “Terrorism respects no limits, geographical or moral. The frontlines are everywhere and the stakes are high. Terrorism not only kills people. It also threatens democratic institutions, undermines economies, and destabilizes regions. The cold hard facts presented here compel the world to continued vigilance and concerted action.”
The cold facts presented show the terror of victims in Palestine and Israel, in the frozen tundra of Chechnya, the sands of Algeria, the cities and villages in India, Kashmir, Indonesia, Burundi, Ethiopia, Haiti and Columbia. Terror in having your farm seized in Zimbabwe. Terror is on the face of a young mother waiting to be stoned as an adulteress in Nigeria and on the faces of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The new religious laws in Western Europe bring terror and fear to the religious minorities in France, Germany and Austria. Terror is on the face of missionaries in the Philippines, in the Congo, and in Russia. Terror is in the voice of an Indonesian Christian and his Muslim friend telling us of their shared losses in the ethnic conflicts in the Islands. Terror is in the cry of a mother who no longer has the strength or the milk to feed her infant daughter.
Terror comes at the point of a gun, the rusted machete, and the bomb strapped to a suicide bomber. Terror is being kidnapped, hijacked, or crouching in horror as your home is being attacked. Terror comes to starving people, standing outside of a warehouse filled with food.
But the cold hard facts of terror’s presence in our broken world are not the only facts for us to consider. There is another reality. The eye of faith sees beyond what is visible and empirical. In the middle of our terror-filled, wounded world, the eye of faith sees a wounded, victorious God moving among his children. The ear of faith hears the voice of the one who died forgiving, urging forgiveness and not vengeance. The eye of faith sees the Spirit of the loving Christ tending the wounds, pouring out comfort and bringing to remembrance all the mighty works of God. In the valley of the shadow of death, people of faith experience the presence of God. Above the tumult, people of faith can find assurance and sing praise because
God is our refuge
Faith helps us lift our hearts to the Lord, promptly and sincerely. The voice of faith is no longer silenced by terror, but confesses that “our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” He is exalted among the nations; He is exalted in the earth. “The Lord Almighty is with us: the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Ps. 46:11).
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