The stories in today's papers on 9/11 memorial services provide a broad sense of the nation's religiosity. Some are better than others in capturing this sense, but overall they are generally good at capturing a sense of the individual experiences Americans are feeling five years later. Of course, whether Americans were feeling religious Monday is another, separate matter worth examining. The main news articles followed the events' measured tone and highlighted a handful of individual stories that attempt to speak for the thousands affected on that tragic day. Take, for instance, this New York Times article that is packed with religious imagery and words such as hope, healing and love:
At the pit in Lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center stood, they commemorated the day with familiar rituals: moments of silence to mark the times when the planes struck and the towers collapsed, wreath-layings, prayers, the music and poetry of loss and remembrance. All were freighted with emotions that still cut deeply but were showing signs of healing.
"How much do I love you?" Susan Sliwak, a mother of three, intoned at a microphone on a platform above the grieving crowd, quoting from an Irving Berlin lyric in tribute to her husband, Robert Sliwak, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee and one of the 2,749 killed at the trade center. "How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?"
As a bass viol, a flute and other instruments softly rendered the Pachelbel Canon, Albinoni's Adagio and other solemn strains, about 200 spouses, partners and other loved ones took turns reading the names of the dead. Many spoke directly to their lost partners, often in firm, proud voices. Others told tearfully of the births of grandchildren or of having reaffirmed their marriage vows. Many simply expressed their love and that of their children, a promise never to forget.
Yesterday's coverage was an opportunity for journalists to write their own stories on what the fifth year after the nation's worst terrorist attack meant. Today, they were forced to follow those doing the remembering and mourning.
Take, for instance, this excellent Akron Beacon Journal article on George W. Sleigh's amazing escape from the World Trade Center's North Tower. Sleigh's religiosity, particularly at the end, dominates his thinking and thus the story. There's nothing particularly special about Sleigh's faith, it's just part of who he is and it is reflected in the story.
Similarly, The Washington Post's article on the day's ceremonies picks up on subtle religious imagery that would have been easy to miss. It makes for a striking picture of sadness and, amazingly, hope:
Families and firefighters and cops in New York filed slowly down ramps into the three-story-deep pit that is Ground Zero, gray slurry walls rising around them. Bells sounded at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. -- the moments when the hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers. On the podium, Carmen Suarez glanced skyward as she finished reading 10 names of those who died.
Her husband, police officer Ramon Suarez, died in those towers.
"If I could build a staircase to heaven I would," Suarez said, "just so I could quickly run up there to have you back in my arms."
On the other hand, I found the Los Angeles Times article on the day of remembrance strikingly devoid of any religious imagery. Was that a reflection of the day's events, or did the reporters miss something?
A fascinating piece of journalism on the NYT's opinion pages reveals the way that jihadi websites treated the anniversary. Not surprisingly, they saw the day through the eyes of their religion, although Muslim teaching prohibits celebrating anniversaries:
In the name of God the merciful and the compassionate, Monday morning is the fifth anniversary of the glorious attacks on New York and Washington accomplished by the 19 heroes of the Muslim community -- may God have mercy on them and raise them to the highest rank for their sacrifice. They pressed America's nose into the ground and allowed the whole world to witness the destruction of its economic and military citadels. In so doing, they crushed the myth with which America had terrorized the world, namely that it was the greatest power on earth and no one was strong enough to confront, let alone make an enemy, of it. ...
That day changed the world, even by the admission of our enemies, and created ... a world divided into two camps, as our sheik and leader Osama bin Laden -- may God protect him -- has stated: "A camp of belief and another camp of hypocrisy and disbelief." Choose for yourself, o Muslim, which camp to belong to: that of belief, Islam and jihad under the banner of the holy warriors or that of hypocrisy and unbelief under the banner of America, the crusading West and those hypocrites who have banded with them. Our congratulations to all and we beseech God to show us in America another black day like that blessed Tuesday.
The religious contrast between the two sides could not be greater.