It wasn't the worst thing, perhaps. But the rescue workers who battled exhaustion as they picked through the rubble had never known anything like it. Fresh air was elusive as a dream; after three or four days they could not even imagine a breeze not laden with chemical smoke or scorched plastic or decay. Manhattan had never smelled like this-like something between a tire factory and a battlefield. Worse things have happened: the Holocaust (by far), the battle of the Somme, the Galveston flood. Worse, that is, in terms of body count, the sheer mathematics of death. But we have never known them. Unlike previous generations, we don't regularly have our noses rubbed in the real dynamics of death and destruction.
Eighteen lives seem very light in the balance of the 5,000-plus we've been hearing about. They would have been completely lost to history, except that Jesus mentioned them once. He knew their number, along with the circumstance of their death and the spiritual state of each one. "Or those 18 who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them-do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!" (Luke 13:4-5). He also knew their terror as the building fell, and the last thought on each mind. He who knows the fall of a sparrow also measures the real dimensions of every human heart.
Towers testify to our best and our worst: our airy aspirations mired in clay. From Shinar to Chicago, we build as high as possible, to the very limit of our resources. That impulse to build is not evil. Beings stamped in God's image carry a big space inside-a space meant to be filled with God. But when our nature fell it left the vaulted emptiness, which we try to fill up with stunted ambitions. Something in us tells us to build big, build grand, but even as our towers go up, we've forgotten the real reason why.
The bad thing about towers is that they make such easy targets. Even-or especially-those towers of perception we raise at every opportunity. In the last 20 years, opportunity has never been greater to out-realize reality: to virtualize it, play with it, even make entertainment out of it. In "reality TV" we get apparent life drama with the physical pain, loathsome smells, and gut-wrenching panic edited out. Perhaps that is why, when the fuel-laden passenger jets smashed into the World Trade Center, the only comparison witnesses could make was to a movie. "But this was real," they said over and over. "This was real." Those planes did more than bring down the pinnacle of the New York City skyline. They also shattered our towers of illusion.
We have had many more than two of those. We have sung, a mighty fortress is (pick one or more) my family, my health, my bank account. We have exulted in our nation's (pick one or more) military strength, economic might, democratic institutions. And now we see that none of these brings us security.
The people who died in the WTC were not worse sinners than the rest of us: Some were wise, others foolish; some were decent and forthright, others venal and underhanded; some were saved, others condemned. But almost all of them worked in a tower of lofty aspiration, in a city of unimaginable wealth, in a degree of luxury and ease that the world has never before known. And none of them went to work that day expecting to die.
If a prophet had set up on Park Row that morning and warned them against complacency, he would not have attracted much attention, even from the Christians. That's a prophet's business, to warn against complacency, and his lot is to be ignored. But this is still a very dangerous world where the Prince of this age still reigns. The effects of the fall will never be edited out; we'll have to go on fighting them until God brings the world to an end. And the fight must be carried not merely to rogue nations and ranting dictators, for no one can effectively battle evil who has not first confronted the evil in himself.
Jesus put first things first: "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Your tower is an illusion. My judgment is real and swift and sure. And it will come for all."