Searching for God in September 11

The PBS documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero finds clergy members among the most disillusioned and disturbed

By Thane Peterson

As the first anniversary of the Sepember 11 terrorist attacks approaches, Americans will be faced with blanket, all-day television coverage. That leaves three basic choices: Ignore TV and mark the occasion in some personal way, channel surf, or try to watch one or two programs that are really thought-provoking. I'm leaning toward the third option.

Most of the best programming will be reruns shown during the evening. Among the very best are CBS's 9/11, the documentary shot in and around the World Trade Center by two young French filmmakers just before and during the collapse, and HBO's In Memoriam, a compact account of the tragedy seen mainly through the eyes of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

These are powerful documentaries, but if you're going to pick just one show to watch, I recommend tuning in to Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, an episode of Public Broadcasting's Frontline series. First aired in early September and scheduled to be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. on the 11th, the show wrestles with the big issues that TV usually doesn't handle very well: Where was God, and how could he let such evil occur in his name?


  It's a two-hour collage of interviews with religious leaders, victims of the attacks, friends and relatives of the victims, scholars, and novelists and other artists. It cuts through the easy religious pieties we've heard elsewhere and forces us to think deeply about faith in the face of immense tragedy.

Don't be put off by the show's too-brutal beginning, which is heavy on images of the people in the towers' upper floors who were forced by smoke and fire to jump to their deaths. You could easily skip the first 14 minutes altogether -- we know these things happened, and it seems like a violation to watch the images again. But after a shaky start, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero drops the sensationalism and gradually becomes extremely serious.

While you're watching it, or sometime before or after the broadcast, you may want to visit the PBS Web site at There, you'll find longer outtakes from interviews with people featured in the documentary.


  For instance, Joseph Griesedieck, 31, a boyish-looking Episcopal priest was eating breakfast at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant when the first plane rammed into the World Trade Center. After three days of ministering to rattled parishioners at his church, he went home at week's end intending to enjoy his usual Friday-evening pizza dinner with his family. Instead, he found himself announcing just inside the front door, "I have to go."

He set down his briefcase, kissed his wife and two young children goodbye, and hailed a cab. Soon, frightened, a little overwhelmed, and still wearing a suit and clerical collar, Griesedieck was scrambling over smoking mounds of steel with the rescuers at Ground Zero, blessing buckets as they were passed out of the ruins.

"I asked one rescue worker: 'Was that a body part?' Griesedieck recalls after glancing into one of the buckets. "He said, like a robot, 'Yes Father,' and on he went to the next bucket. I realized then that I was in the right place."

While Griesedieck appears in the documentary, this scene can be found only in the online transcript. I note it here because I think it adds weight and perspective to his comments in the show.


  Not surprisingly, the most moving interviews are the ones in which victims' friends and family members wrestle with their faith. It's heartbreaking to hear Marian Fontana, a writer whose burly firefighter husband, Dave, died at the World Trade Center, declare that she can no longer take part in the little private conversations she once had with God. "I can't bring myself to speak to Him anymore because I feel so abandoned," she says. "I guess deep down inside, I know that He still exists and that I have to forgive and move on, but I'm not ready for that yet."

Or to hear Tim Lynston, a security guard at the World Trade Center who knew 30 of the victims, declare in the same breath that "I think I am a good Christian," and that he now considers God "a barbarian."

However, the most compelling moments for me are the blunt, self-doubting interviews with religious leaders. They can't find a caring, compassionate deity in this madness as they place it in the context of other horrors, such as Rwanda and the Holocaust. They aren't about to let God -- or themselves -- off the hook.

Chillingly, Griesedieck declares: "After September 11, the face of God was a blank slate for me. God could not be counted on in the way I thought God could be counted on."


  Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a theology professor at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York City, whose parish isn't far from the World Trade Center, sets the tone when he places blame for the attacks not on politics or privation but squarely on religion. "From the first moment I looked into that horror...I recognized an old companion," Albacete says. "I recognized religion."

These leaders admit something that has been largely ignored in other September 11 accounts: That a sort of religious rapture seems to have motivated the attackers. "When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I was not in the slightest bit surprised," Albacete declares. "I recognized it -- this thirst, this demand for the absolute."

The men of the cloth (and most of them are men) also recognize that the passion that motivated the highjackers is, as Albacete puts it, "the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things."


  Lest Americans glibly congratulate themselves on their religious tolerance, an interview with Reverend David Benke, a high-ranking official in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, is also included. He was suspended and charged with heresy by members of his church for taking part in interfaith prayers at Yankee Stadium 12 days after September 11.

One of the most memorable interviews is with Brad Hirschfeld, an Orthodox rabbi who is vice-president of the National Jewish Center for Learning & Leadership in New York City. At first, you worry that he's preparing to make a self-serving attack on Muslims when he insists that the September 11 attackers were able to call on "a very rich tradition in Islam" to justify their actions.

Any fear that the rabbi is being self-serving dissolves, however, when he admits that he himself fell into a similarly murderous religious rapture as a young Jewish militant in the West Bank city of Hebron. He admits that he turned back from militancy only "when it got so out of control that people I knew committed murder" against the Palestinians. "You get so drunk on God that you don't see anything else," Hirschfeld admits. "And I didn't."


  If you read the extended interview with Hirschfeld at the PBS Web site, you'll discover that he, too, visited Ground Zero a few days after Griesedieck and was so overcome with grief that he fell to the ground and wept. A fireman came over and sat on the ground with him, and they wept in each other's arms.

All too often, TV coverage of religion is dominated by fast-talking televangelists, but this documentary presents religious leaders Americans really need to hear from. Read the extended interviews with them, and file their names away for future reference. We'll surely need to turn to them again and again in the future.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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