No one needs to remind me that Sept. 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. It is one of those details that is lodged in my brain and comes out when people begin to ask, “Where were you when…?” I remember it was a Tuesday, because I woke up that morning and turned the TV on so that I could watch sports highlights while I finished getting ready. The TV was on ABC because the night before I had been watching Monday Night Football. It seems a silly bit of minutia but it serves to remind me of the great divide. One evening you are watching the Giants and Broncos toss the pigskin, the next morning you realize that the world you knew when you went to bed has died in the night. Everything has been changed forever. Calamities like these are not just tragedies, they are watershed tragedies: cataclysmic events which cause the waters of history to flow in a different direction.
Such moments in a nation’s history are usually the catalysts and initiators of new eras. Looking back, this is not the first such event for America. Though there have been great tragedies (The Challenger explosion, JFK assassination), the last truly watershed tragedy was probably Pearl Harbor, which woke America from its post-World War I isolationism and led to her entrance into World War II.
Looking further back, I realize that Rome had an event of similar significance to 9/11. It forced the city to reexamine who it was and what it wanted. It so transformed the city that some historians question whether we can know reliably anything in Roman History that happened previous to it. Rome became who we know her to be as a result of her response to this event. In 390 BC, a group of Gauls had invaded Italy. After defeating the Roman army at the Battle of Allia, they sacked Rome. The devastation was so bad that Romans briefly considered relocating to a nearby city which, though recently conquered, was in much better shape than Rome. Traumatized by the events of 390BC, the Romans determined never to let Rome be sacked again. So deeply ingrained was this sentiment that hundreds of years later, any band of Gauls even approaching the borders of the Roman Empire was cause for alarm. Rome began by making defensive alliances with neighboring towns and gradually grew from a crossroads river town perched atop seven hills into a city-state ruling first Latium, then Italy, the Mediterranean, and eventually much of Europe. So successful were Rome’s efforts to secure her own peace that Rome herself wasn’t sacked again for 800 years until Alaric the Visigoth in AD 410, an event which was itself a watershed tragedy causing, among other things, St. Augustine to write the City of God in an attempt to understand what had happened.
As we remember the events of 9/11, may we also learn from how Rome handled her watershed tragedy. May it be said of us, like the Roman, that we strove to make sure it never happens again.