Something Out of Nothing

We buried a good man Saturday, September 22. His name was Patrick McGuire, and he was in his office on the 84th floor of Tower 2 when the first plane smacked into Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. The McGuires had four children, and Pat served on the education committee at St. Vincent Martyr, where my own children go to school. On the way into church for his funeral Mass, the church bells rang, and as I listened, I thought I now knew what it meant to have bells toll. We were told by Pat’s brother that his tombstone will have the only epitaph he’d ever wanted: “The best dad ever.”

“How do you explain to children something that has no explanation?” The words came from a teacher I watched that evening on CNN, whose fifth-grade class was coming to grips with what it had seen on television. Actually I thought the children did pretty well. And with all due respect, my own view is that the events do have an explanation, and not to give it to children is almost as neglectful as not feeding them.

At six and three years old, my own kids fortunately are too young to grasp all the details of what happened. I’m not sure they’ve even seen the TV coverage. Still, they know something is up. The day after the attacks, my three-year-old asked me, “Did Grandma and Grandpa die?” A week later she asked, this time at her older sister’s prodding, “Mommy, are you going to die?”

Grandma and Grandpa, of course, are doing fine, and Mommy isn’t going to heaven for some time. But three daddies of schoolmates are gone, and they are going to find that out soon if they haven’t yet done so. When they do, I want them to have a context. And so I told them: “Girls, some daddies of some kids at your school were killed while they were at work. Your daddy is okay. The other daddies were killed by very bad men. But the president says he is going to get them, so don’t worry. And remember that there are lots of very good men fighting the bad men and the bad things they do. That’s why we always tell you to look up to the police officers and firemen. These people help us, and they must be very brave.”

How much they understand of this I will never know. But more, probably, than we suspect. After all, it is only on CNN roundtables or at university seminars that people don’t understand good and bad. Fairy tales, at least the ones I read my daughters, are full of evil princes, wicked stepmothers, and horrible monsters, who not only want ill but take positive delight in it. My children always want to know, “Is this the good guy?” or “Is that man the bad guy?” As they get older and come to look back on the atrocity of September 11, the one thing I would like them always to retain is the understanding that what hit their schoolmates was evil itself, even in the most explicit sense of nothingness: the nothingness that Osama bin Laden and his henchmen put in place of the flesh-and-blood fathers of children they go to school with.

I write these words at our kitchen table, on the second Sunday after the towers came down. By the time my thoughts appear in print, the United States may have already responded militarily. In the course of time, what America does will move from possibility to history and will come to look foreordained when viewed from the other end. No doubt that is how my own girls will come to comprehend what happened. As they do, it strikes me as less important for them to know where their daddy was when it happened than how all the people in their overlapping circles of community—neighbors, family, friends, church, town, and country—rose to the occasion. Especially when they could not know the outcome.

I’d like them to know of men like Rev. Mychal Judge, chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. When his fellow firemen went into the burning building, Father Judge went in with them and lost his own life giving last rites to another. The other firemen retrieved his body and—in a spontaneous act of grace—walked it two blocks to St. Peter’s Church because they didn’t want to leave it in the street. They laid Father Judge in front of the altar and covered him with a white shroud, on top of which they placed his fireman’s helmet and his priestly stole, symbols of the two brotherhoods to which he belonged.

The evil of taking Father Judge away from the men who loved him: Again, leaving nothing where there was something. When in the years to come my daughters are told—as they surely will be—that there is no such thing as heroic virtue, I’d like them to remember Father Judge,

I pray that my girls will remember the many other acts of grace that rose from the ashes: the volunteers who came from all corners of the country to put out fires, dig, search, or feed; the eulogy for Barbara Olson by Rev. Franklin Martin McAfee; Edward Cardinal Egan dispensing last rites to victims at St. Vincent’s Hospital; the Battle Hymn of the Republic dusted off and echoing from our national cathedrals; the heroism of their Uncle Brian, who helped a pregnant woman get out of Tower 2 before it came down; the building security officers who Brian says stayed at their posts to direct others out and gave their own lives doing so; the New Yorkers who stood by all day simply to cheer the rescue workers; and their mother, making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the rescue workers. A news industry that is always accused of printing only bad news suddenly reversed itself. That is the good, filling the vacuum of evil.

Nothingness is hard for the mind to accept. I know, because I was at the ferry slip just across lower Manhattan when it happened. Because I had not actually seen the planes hit, I thought it was just a fire, confined to the top of the first tower. Suddenly, there was a big cloud of ugly black smoke, and in retrospect, I realize that this was the first of the two towers collapsing before me. But even watching, I could not comprehend a tower coming down, and so I said to a fellow commuter, “The smoke is so thick I can see only one tower.” Nothingness. I called my wife, who told me it was not a fire but terrorists. A half-hour later, I was on a train back home where someone on a cell phone spoke out to a hushed car, “The second tower is down.” It called to mind Augustine, getting the word that Rome had been sacked. Evil. Nothingness.

Of all the dreadful sights of those first days, nothing hit me as hard as driving home late at night and passing by the home of Tim Hughes, where the lights were on for a dad who never did come home. And then to come by the next day and see the American flags the Hugheses had put up: something out of nothing, grace. The church bells tolled again for Tim Hughes and Alex Napier, another school father. For much of the rest of the country, these men will be just numbers on a final casualty list. For us, they are souls with faces—and with children in whom they live on.

And so, my children, when you read this years hence, know that in the midst of the worst attack this country has ever suffered on its home soil, we used our fear to stiffen our resolve, even without quite knowing how it would all turn out. At Pat McGuire’s funeral, our pastor told us, “The terrorists wanted to bring America to its knees. In that they succeeded. But not the way they thought.” Amen.

Author

  • William McGurn

    William McGurn is an American writer. He was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from June 2006 until February 2008, replacing Michael Gerson. McGurn served as the chief editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal. From 1992 to 1998, McGurn served as the senior editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Prior to this he was the Washington bureau chief of National Review. He writes the Main Street column at The Wall Street Journal and is an executive at its parent company, News Corporation. On Dec. 11, 2012, he was named editorial page editor of the New York Post.

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