I was at a conference at Fordham University last week entitled ‘Moral Outrage and Moral Repair – Reflections on 9-11 and its Afterlife’. The title interested me, as it seemed to accurately describe large portions of my existence this past decade.
My brother, Bill Kelly Jr. died in Tower 1. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He didn’t work at the Trade Center. Ironically, Bill’s prior visit to Windows on the World was in December 2000 to receive an employee recognition award. Who knew that the one-day conference Bill was attending on September 11th, the conference he cajoled his boss into letting him attend, would be an event from which he would never return.
Moral outrage – certainly. At the fanatics that murdered my brother. At the twist of fate that led him to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. At a humanity that allows for violence as a way to make a point, state your case, right perceived wrongs. At anyone who dared rejoice in the agonizing smoke and fire.
Then confusion – at my country, now planning to bomb others a world away. Didn’t we … yes we …. just live through this? And how could we … yes we … be the cause of similar harm to others? Confusion also with my church. What is a just war exactly? And how does one truly live out the gospels; or are they just a collection of beautiful stories?
The Moral Repair will take a lifetime, and then some, I like to believe. September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows is a large part of this process for me. Bill is gone; and safe; and no longer in pain. I also like to believe he is surrounded by love. My faith tells me so.
But I learned another lesson in moral repair at Fordham, from one of the speakers – a rabbi named Irwin Kula. He pointed out a truth that I desperately believe in – the most important and sacred value in our very fragile human lives is love. In the months following 9-11, Rabbi Kula became fascinated with the last words of those killed on September 11th. After reading a few stories in the paper, he began seeking out the last words and sentences of anyone he could find who was killed that day. And you know what he found? Not a single person said “Kill them.” “Get them back.” “Avenge my death.” No. Last words were not about hatred; they were sometimes about fear, but ultimately, and overwhelmingly, about love. “Tell mom and dad I love them.” “Tell the kids I’ll miss them and I love them.” “Julie, it’s bad, but know that I love you.”
So what do these last words tell us? I like to think they teach a lesson. There’s a time for righteous moral outrage, just as there’s a time for accountability, and justice. Peaceful Tomorrows helps with these vital goals. But in the end, it’s about love, and my brother Bill. How much he loved and was loved. How much I miss him. And how much I want the world to be a place where last words are never the end result of political violence, but instead reflect a full life well lived.