The bell tolled

managing editor for the Attorney General’s Crime and Violence Prevention Center

The day the hijackers inflicted hell on the World Trade Center and thousands of innocent people, the noise in our daily lives stopped suddenly. The silence of the skies with no airplanes was followed by the silence of people in churches. In the silence, we looked into our souls and into the soul of our country.

Suddenly, we didn’t notice the delay in the line at the grocery store. We appreciated the abundance of our food. Suddenly, we didn’t notice the flaw of a loved one. We cherished our families.

In my own neighborhood, the ordinary became the precious. Horses grazed in the sun, wagging their tails. The leaves of eucalyptus and mimosa trees gleamed in the breeze. Birds chirped. A new quiet of skies without planes and streets without cars brought these sights and sounds into poignant relief. I dug my fingers into the thick, soft fur of my cat, the hum of her purr against my heart. Suddenly, we appreciated life’s treasures in a fierce way now that we know they are not guaranteed.

On the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, hushed crowds squeezed into the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and spilled out onto the steps. In the silence, the bell tolled. The safe haven of the world was suddenly at risk. Whites, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians stood shoulder to shoulder. Young and old came and people of different religions. Many dabbed their eyes. Firefighters in uniform stood at attention outside the church to honor their fallen colleagues in New York. As a nation, we asked ourselves, have we neglected our national security for luxuries that are less important?

As citizens, we asked ourselves, have we paid attention to our nation and our liberty? Were we fiddling while America burned?

As individuals, we asked ourselves, how are we living our lives? Are we engaged in trivial pursuits?

A commentator on television, trying to imagine the last harrowing minutes of those killed on the hijacked flights, speculated: If you knew you were going to die, you would hope, above all, that you had done something good with your life.

In our sorrow, perhaps we are realizing that the only true fulfillment is devotion to a cause beyond ourselves. In the silence, the bell tolled. This time, we were listening.

“We are one nation under God,” the bishop said. “May He set His words in your heart.”