Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Thomas Michael Carpenter is the kind of teacher who fuels your fire. The 48-year-old was born in Kingman, Arizona. Today, he lives in Flagstaff, where he serves as assistant director of graduate services for Northern Arizona University. He and his wife, Kathleen, have a son, James. Sept. 11 was off to a peaceful start when Tom heard the news. “I had just come home from an exceptionally spiritual and rejuvenating morning walk when Kathleen told me a plane had crashed into the WTC. I watched the second plane hit.” The day after, Tom wrote, “How Deep is the Ocean?” It ran in the “The Arizona Daily Sun” on Sept. 16.
I went for a swim once near the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Our ship had just completed several days of maneuvers and drills, and the Captain rewarded our hard work with a Sunday afternoon barbecue and swim call.
The ship floated on a calm sea. On the helo deck, stewards cooked hamburgers on grills fabricated from fifty-five gallon drums. Armed men stood watch on upper levels, keeping their eyes peeled for sharks, while shipmates frolicked in the water like sea otters.
I stood on the fantail for a long time looking at the place where sea and sky converged. There was not a breath of wind and no other ships in sight. There were no seabirds, no clouds, just blue and bluer to all horizons. If not for the equatorial heat radiating from the steel hull and the catcalls from my bobbing buddies, I might never have jumped, but I did, finally, feet first and afraid.
I struggled to the surface, rising faster than my bubbles. The water was warmer than I expected, and saltier. Frantically at first, I treaded water, then gradually settled down and relaxed a bit.
I swam a short distance away from the hull and turned my back to the ship. The hoots and chatter of my shipmates faded from my consciousness as I became aware of the great depth open to me, cooling my shimmering feet, releasing me from my fears.
As if at the cusp of faith and reason, two densities of the same substance, I dangled there, my lily-white legs shimmering below the surface of a vast unknown.
If faith asks of us to forgive, and reason tells us to take steps to insure nobody gets away with terrorism against us ever again, what are we supposed to do? What choice do we make? Which test should we choose to pass? If we choose to pass that test of our resolve inflicted by our enemies, then everybody please pay attention because somebody is in for a serious ass-kicking.
But what about the other test, the one that tests our capacity for forgiveness? Surely there is no reason to forgive. How can those of us who have not suffered direct loss even suggest that forgiveness is an option? Hundreds of miles away from the death and destruction, untouched but for unrelenting news coverage, how can I even speak of forgiveness toward those who are responsible; especially now, while so many dead have yet to be buried?
Why? Because, forgiveness is – must – always be an option. In the sky, I see the reckoning reason requires rising like a mushroom cloud. I also feel the pull of that deep and vast unknown realm of forgiveness. Yet, the depth to which forgiveness reaches frightens me. What would it mean to forgive? How vulnerable does it make me? How does anyone forgive this? Even if our leaders were to tell us that our unilateral and irrevocable response to this heinous act of terrorism will be forgiveness, who would listen, who would agree? Who can argue with those who can’t forgive, who won’t forgive, who don’t know how?
With reason, the way is clear. We know what lies ahead – retribution upon retribution.
Forgiveness is the great unknown. Beneath it lurks the terrible leviathans of fear and doubt. Will we be devoured in our forgiveness? Will forgiveness bring upon us only more outrages, more sorrow? Or will it ultimately save us all? As a nation, we cannot know, unless we immerse ourselves, one by one, soul by soul, in forgiveness.