THE COINCIDENCE of dates is precious to human beings because it creates the impression that underlying the chaos of normality is a structure of order. The passage of time is not a mere matter of chance, and even things that seem unrelated are tied together, if not by links of causality, by meaning. In casting an eye back across the terrain of the past, a human being with a feeling for history looks for the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate events that will illuminate the hidden connection that alone explains their full significance.
Sept. 11 will live in the American memory. But as what? "Memory," the novelist Paul Auster says, is "the space in which a thing happens for the second time." On Sept. 11, 1941, at almost exactly the moment in which the Pentagon would be hit by American Airlines Flight 77 60 years later, ground was broken for that building in a solemn ceremony. On Sept. 11, 1944, Allied soldiers arrived at the German border, sealing Hitler's fate.
But also on Sept. 11, 1944, as I read in W.G. Sebald's "On the Natural History of Destruction," distant Germans watched the night sky above the city of Darmstadt: "The light grew and grew until the whole of the southern sky was glowing, shot through with red and yellow." It was a night of Allied terror bombing.
On Sept. 11, 1973, terrorists launched the violent overthrow of a democratic government in Chile. In that case, the result was the murder of the head of state, Salvador Allende, and the terrorists were sponsored not by an ad hoc nihilist group, but by the United States.
Sept. 11 as an anniversary of savage violence pushes the mind also to Sept. 11, 1945, the date that marks Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson's post-Hiroshima proposal to President Truman that the United States immediately share the secrets of the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union in order to head off an arms race "of a rather desparate character," as Stimson put it. "The chief lesson I have learned in a long life," Stimson said, anticipating his critics, "is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him." As I noted a year ago, Stimson's proposal marks the great American road not taken.
On Sept. 11, 1906, more than 3,000 men of Indian origin gathered at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa, to denounce the just-passed Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance -- a new set of racial laws condemning them to second-class citizenship.
As I learned from Jonathan Schell's recent masterwork "The Unconquerable World," one of those who stood and took a God-invoking oath against obedience to such laws was Mohandas K. Gandhi. He recognized this joint commitment to a radically individual act -- "a new principle," he later said of that day, "had come into being" -- as the generating spark of Satyagraha, the "truth force." Gandhi said, "The foundation of the first civil resistance under the then-known name of passive resistance was laid by accident . . . I had gone to the meeting with no preconceived resolution. It was born at the meeting. The creation is still expanding." What began on that Sept. 11 would generate the great counter-story of nonviolence running through the most violent century in history.
At the dawn of the new century, what story do we tell? Does Sept. 11 represent only the experience of American grief, victimhood, justification for revenge? Does Sept. 11 live on only as the engine driving America's shocking new belligerence? Or, in recalling the nobility of those selfless New Yorkers and Pentagon workers who reentered the wounded buildings, who remained behind to usher others out, or who simply maintained calm as worlds collapsed around them -- can we carry this date forward as an image of the possibility of public love?
It may help to see Sept. 11, 2001, in the context of those other days in other years. How, when the ground was first broken for the Pentagon, its builders assumed one day it would be a hospital. How the leader of America's greatest war sought in its aftermath to end war forever. How knowing that Washington, too, can sponsor terrorism must lead to humility. How the age-old dream of nonviolence became actual.
Ordinarily, we think of such incidents in isolation, but there can be an archeology of the calendar that uncovers harmonies in the layers of time.
Sept. 11 is an anniversary of the future, a day enshrining the worst of human impulses -- and the best. A day, therefore, that puts the choice before us. How are we going to live now? We are on the earth for the briefest of interludes. Thinking in particular of all those who died in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, let us honor them by building the earth, instead of destroying it. Let us make peace, instead of war.