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September 11, 2003
An ancient news story, now forgotten. A terrible accident: workers, perhaps, killed while repairing one of the towers associated with the waterworks of Siloam in the city. Or maybe passersby. Or children maybe, who had wanted to climb to the top of the tower and look out across the city. Who was killed, we do not know. We know of the event only from Jesus, and Jesus doesn't say. He mentions the tragedy only in passing, to make a point about bad things happening to good people -- "Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?"* But everyone in the audience knew about it. It must have been relatively recent. Oh, yeah, they thought to themselves. I remember that. That was a terrible thing.

News of the disaster must have spread quickly in the city. Not as quickly as it did when our towers fell, of course, when people all over the world stood in front of their televisions and watched in disbelief as the buildings burned and as they fell. But there must have been the same frenzy of fear and confusion: was she in that part of town? Did the tower fall on him? Was he working that day? Did she get out? Why hasn't he come home? People must have run there, from all over Jerusalem, to see for themselves. People must immediately have begun pawing through the rubble, must immediately have begun the frantic search for anyone who was still alive. How many they saved, we do not know. Jesus doesn't say how many got out of the tower alive. Or how many were pulled from the wreckage. I guess he didn't have to; everyone listening to him already knew all about it. It was large enough in their memory that he didn't need to add any details, anymore than we have to remind somebody what we mean when we say 9/11.

There will come a time when the bombing of the World Trade Center will be like that -- a moment in history that not everybody knows about. Most New Yorkers know about the General Slocum tragedy now, when more than a thousand people died in flames on an East River pleasure cruise, and about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when more than a hundred young women burned to death in a locked sweatshop -- but the general memory of those sorrows has only resurfaced since 9/11, when we cast around in our collective memory for other tragedies, to see how other people survived them. Before 9/11, labor or maritime or New York historians knew about the General Slocum or Triangle. Some people recollected, vaguely, learning about them in their school days. Nobody remembered them.

The World Trade Center a minor event in the memory of the world? A collapse of the towers a footnote to history? That can never be, we think -- but it will. Life moves forward, whether we follow it readily or stumble after it blindly, several steps behind. There will come a time when nobody remembers. If the earth lasts long enough, there will come a time when nobody even
knows. When they'll have to look it up.

History closes up quickly around the place where we were. Those who loved us will miss us mightily. They will go on with their lives, though, and they will become accustomed to our absence, noticing that accommodation within themselves with the odd mixture of guilt and gratitude that only survivors know. As long as they live, there will be spasms of memory and sorrow, some moments when it seems freshly terrible, as if it had just happened, but mostly they will have gotten used to it. They will tell the next generation about us. And the next, perhaps. And after that, we will be gone from memory.

This need not happen any sooner than we can bear to allow it. There is no timeline to human grief. The fact that one day our sorrow will take its place in the past does not mean that we must push it out of our hearts before we are ready. Time stops for a moment today, and we stop to remember. For a moment, we are joined to everyone who perished. And then the world goes on.

*Luke 13:4.
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