On August 16, 2001, I stood with my stepbrother and tens of thousands of people in Liberty State Park on Upper New York Bay in Jersey City with a beautiful view of Lower Manhattan. I was twenty-one years old, had recently graduated from college, and would be on my way in a couple of weeks to start graduate school in England. I was on a last hoorah vacation—more of a pilgrimage, really—and we had reached our goal: seeing our favorite band, Radiohead, on one of the last dates of their American tour in support of their turn-of-the-millennium experimental masterpieces Kid A and Amnesiac.
The band played a marathon set, including two encores, with songs full of paranoia about modern life—songs which, even then, gave me the sense that the world I had always known was not going to last much longer. The show began with the eerie track “National Anthem,” which declares, “Everyone is so near. Everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on.” Looming above the stage just on the other side of the mouth of the Hudson River were the two towers of the World Trade Center, each soaring well over 1,000 feet high.
They would be destroyed less than a month later.
On September 11, 2001, I was back at my mom’s house in Florida. My siblings and friends had almost all returned to their colleges or were at work. I was packing some things for my impending move, and I’d planned to drive over to my sister’s student apartment after stopping by the record store to pick up Ben Folds’ new album, Rockin’ the Suburbs. It’s a record I still love, but it could not be more different from Radiohead, representing a now quaint world of the Gen-X past. Considering our present crises, the invented problems of an in-between generation in the most prosperous society in the history of the world seem trivial, however humorous.
My plans changed like everyone else’s on 9/11. Instead of purchasing new pop music and hanging out, I spent the day pacing around a sunny living room of what could arguably be described as a McMansion, watching live as the second plane hit, and the collapse of the South Tower followed fifty-six minutes later, and the North Tower fell twenty-nine minutes after that. And then, like most people on Earth at the time, I could not look away from the endless replays of the catastrophes in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Everything had been rocked, including my suburb.
As September 11 became September 12, then 13, and so on, I went ahead with my own plans and tried to figure out whether there would even be a way for me to get to England. Despite the awfulness of our circumstances, I busied myself, hoping it was all ultimately just another big obstacle to get through. American culture tried to stay busy and return to normal too. But it was not to be. We went to war. Good guys versus bad guys should have done the trick, but despite heroic sacrifices from our armed forces, everything got worse. Eventually, we welcomed the smartphone revolution and the false promises of unity through connectivity. The last six years have brought a tidal wave of social change and bitter division. It was Radiohead’s paranoid vision of lasting instability—not Ben Folds’ off-beat observations from the cradle of normality—that would prove true.
Interestingly, the great Catholic literary scholar, René Girard, anticipated all of it.
Girard had come to prominence three decades before 9/11 with his landmark text Violence and the Sacred, which offered a self-evident theory about human history and human relationships that believers and nonbelievers alike came to appreciate. Girard described how all myths, and all societies, hinge on mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism—that is, competing individuals and groups who want the same things can only achieve social cohesion (and avoid divisive rivalry) through the designation of a scapegoat, an appointed outsider whose existence provides competitors a cathartic release.
In Christ, Girard would later explain how every mimetic structure is fulfilled and ended. Every scapegoat is set free by the Lamb of God, the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. But as the world moved further away from the narrative of the saving victim, chaos crept in. And for Girard, chaos reigned in a new way after September 11, 2001. In an interview titled “Apocalyptic Thinking After 9/11,” Girard called 9/11 a “seminal event,” after which “you can see the shape of the apocalypse increasing every day.” He elaborated in an interview in 2008: “The era of wars is over: From now on, war exists everywhere. Our era is one of universal action. There’s no longer any such thing as an intelligent policy. We’ve almost reached the end.”
For a short while after 9/11, a “dictatorship of relativism,” as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously called it, actually seemed to keep various simmering pots from boiling over. We all got something out of the Lord of the Rings films, and nobody imposed any dogma on anyone else as we all enjoyed a TV sitcom about the quirks of life in a corporate cubicle. But the turmoil of 2020 has revealed that even relativism itself has now become a competing faction in a crowded winner-take-all arena. The scapegoating mechanism is more prevalent and more dangerous than ever. Everyone is a competitor with everyone else. Everyone is a victim to someone else’s power. And speaking of “mimetic,” what isn’t a meme nowadays?
It’s all pretty grim; but it is only sensible for Christians—and especially evangelists—to be realistic about where we are now, twenty years after 9/11. Girard may be able to help us move forward.
Reflecting on the seemingly endless proliferation of mimetic rivalry in the post–9/11 world, Girard said in 2008, “I like to think that if you take this notion as far as you possibly can, you go through the ceiling, as it were, and discover what amounts to original sin. An experience of demystification, if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion.” The end of the world may be drawing nearer, but it’s really none of our business. Instead, it is our present duty to point to the timeless problem of sin and the universal solution to it through Christ and his Church. Like St. Augustine watching the fall of Rome, we may suddenly be able to show others the inherent flaws in what Girard calls the “archaic religions” of strife and victimization. There is no way to impose meaning on the work of Satan in the twenty-first century apart from the thing that imposes meaning on everything, for all times: the Passion of the Christ—the sacrifice that fulfills and ends all myths, and undermines all human violence.
And we encounter the Passion—really encounter it!—in the sacrifice of the Mass. When I look back on twenty years of life since 9/11, just about the only thing that makes sense is the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life and in my family, culminating in coming into the Catholic Church and receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus.
Sadly, the Mass itself has become tribalized within the Catholic Church. But Christ’s promises have never failed, and his presence has never vanished from the world. The bloodless sacrifice and our own sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving happen on altars in Catholic churches throughout the world every day. We have an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who is always at work leading us into the noncompetitive truth of God, liberating us to be our true selves, giving us enough of what we all desire to satisfy every need, and requiring no scapegoat upon which to offload our shame and fear.
At that ominous Radiohead concert in August 2001, the band finished its twenty-three-song set with “The Tourist,” the closing track from their OK Computer album. Thom Yorke’s voice invited listeners over and over again, “Hey man, slow down, slow down.” I encourage us all to slow down too. As a priest told me during Confession recently, “Just let the world be the world. Pray more.” Or as Girard described to Peter Robinson in a 2009 interview, the way to “turn the tide” is quite simply by “behaving like Christians.” Twenty years after 9/11, here we are in a bigger mess than ever before, but with the same mission and the same source of sacramental grace that the Apostles had twenty years after Pentecost.
Whatever happens, happens. We know what to do.