On the evening of September 10, 2001, I attended a talk by former Senator George Mitchell at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan. He spoke mostly about his book Making Peace, an account of his role in the negotiations that led to Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Mitchell’s talk is available online. Fortunately C-SPAN’s Book TV recorded it. It’s long, but worth listening to, and the actual speech ends around the 44 minute mark; you can skip the Q&A.
I had been to Ireland with a friend in 1999 and thought it a beautiful country. We went off-season (in October) and were free to mosey around the country without crowds of tourists. One of our first visits was to Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. It was a weekday morning (and, anyway, not our faith) so we were just there to admire the architecture. We happened to arrive just as the boys’ choir was finishing practice and the Minister led everyone assembled–the choir, tourists, and a few locals who seemed to know that this would take place–in a prayer for peace. Being vaguely aware of the previous year’s peace accord, it seemed particularly meaningful.
We were somewhat alarmed, on a later walk through Dublin, to see posters about an upcoming election from the Sinn Féin party. That’s the legitimate political party of the Irish Republican Army, who before the peace agreement had been responsible for some of “The Troubles.” But they’d gone legit and their political candidates were, to all appearances, following the law. Still, it was a little jarring in our otherwise relaxing vacation.
So as I listened to George Mitchell speak, I thought about Ireland. And I thought about the United States, where political violence was extremely rare and usually confined to isolated incidents. Yes, we have our problems, our own injustices–but people didn’t worry about bombings in our marketplaces or other public areas. Military personnel carrying rifles don’t patrol our streets.
I felt proud, perhaps comforted. Looking back, very soon after, I would describe that feeling as “smug.”
Because the next morning, as I was showering and preparing to start the day, everything changed.