The Seventy-Two Who Wait for You

Dearest Rachel –

It’s not really my story, but I figured I could embellish it on this, the twentieth anniversary of one of the most defining moments of still-remembered history. When I first encountered it, it was a fairly elaborate story that ultimately wound up as a joke, although there’s nothing particularly funny about the event that precipitated it. It’s said that comedy is tragedy plus time; the question is, how much time has to elapse before tragedy turns to comedy? And if we pick at the tragic by adding to it (consider what we as a country – or perhaps more accurately, as an administration – were trying to accomplish by this specific date in time. Oh, and that being said, I do hope that you and grandfather were there at the gates, offering hugs and other forms of welcome to those being sent your way from Kabul and the hinterlands), do we slow down the process in which one gets converted to the other?

That being said, here is the story as I’d heard it, with a fair amount of additional elaboration. Feel free to not laugh; I don’t think enough time has passed, or will pass, until there’s no one left to remember the scenes we saw that day:

Twenty years ago by our mortal reckoning, in the antechamber of the afterlife, a literal middle of nowhere and nowhen, five men appeared out of that self-same nowhere. Shortly thereafter, they are joined by another group of five, then four more, and finally, five others.

These are the infamous foot soldiers of al-Qaeda, the most perverse air force of any military in history. And they have just managed the most audacious foreign attack on American soil ever recorded.

After a quick count of noses – “Where’s Zacarias?” “I know not, my brother. We achieved our mission without him; it matters little. Should he miss out on the reward Allah has for us, what of it? It is his loss.” – and some recriminations over the failure of the one group (“At least we took down an entire planeload of the filthy infidels! Is that not enough?!” “Compared to what had been done in the past, perhaps. But compared to that which the rest of us accomplished, hardly, my brother.”), there are the well-deserved mutual congratulations. In some ways, each of them is almost incredulous that they managed to pull off what they did. Truly, Allah has been good and merciful to them, and they have been blessed with the ability to be instruments of His will.

And now… the time has come to claim their reward. They see a shining city in the fairly near distance. The sacred city of Heaven itself, the new Jerusalem. It is to this place that they must proceed to claim their rightful sultanates as martyrs for the cause of submission to Allah, and the elimination of those who oppose Him.

The walk is short – indeed, probably shorter that their walk from where they parked their cars in their respective airports to their seats on their respective fatal flights – although maybe that is but a matter of perspective. After all, when one strides toward one’s eternal reward, every step is pure bliss, and of no consequence in one’s mind.

As the gates to the city come into sight, a young maiden steps out from its walls. No doubt, the first of many concubines each of these men expect for their sacrifice. Her skin is tan as the deerskin she wears, and her long black hair (it is visible? Should that strike the men as odd? No matter for the moment) tied back in a queue. Her face is haughty, reflecting an odd nobility, with high cheekbones, and lips curled in… is that contempt reflected in her visage?

It is at this point that the men notice that she is not alone, although the crowd that surrounds her is of somewhat anachronistic dress. A cohort of men in what we would recognize as colonial garb, complete with wigs powdered dazzling white, virtually surround the new arrivals. The erstwhile martyrs look around with a touch of unease, before one of the colonists speaks, with barely concealed rage:

“You took their liberty… you deserve death!” And Patrick Henry takes a swing at Mohammad Atta, all but breaking his unprepared jaw.

And so the battle is on, with the al-Qaeda members finding themselves outnumbered nearly four to one, being pummeled and pistol-whipped by the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, ‘Lighthorse Harry’ Lee, Meriwether Lewis, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, George Mason, Stephen Austin, Sam Houston, among a crowd of others. It is no contest, the righteous fury of these historical characters catching them by the same level of surprise that they had only recently used on their respective cockpit crews.

A distant cry goes up, as an older man in Middle Eastern garb arrives on the scene, and there is a pause in the fight – if it can be called that, given its one-sided nature thus far. Could this be the Prophet, come to rescue them? They have no way to recognize him, after all.

But no. As he was supposedly given the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, it is the disciple Peter, come to sort out the commotion. With a gesture, and a wave of his hand, he bids the throng of attackers to disperse, and (after some grumbling) they mill past him back into the city.

Wait, they live in this magnificent place? Suppose our intrepid flyers should encounter them again in these celestial realms! Mohammed Atta, eyes blackened nearly shut, cries out in protest:

“This is not what we were promised! Where is our reward for striking this great blow in Allah’s name?”

Peter looks upon them with a slight touch of pity, as a teacher might on a particularly dim student. “What reward were you expecting, child? There were to be seventy-two Virginians awaiting you upon your arrival, after all.”

It is as this point that there is a rumble in the distance, as yet another crowd of people storm their way through to the gates. They trample the beaten and bloodied ersatz martyrs as they approach the fisherman, who patiently ushers them into the gleaming city.

As the last of the crowd is processed, another of the fallen fighters groans, “And what about those?”

“What about them, child? Were they waiting for you? No, you sent them here.

Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, but He has… interesting ways of inflicting it. Now…” and the disciple’s face displays an expression of great sadness that one would think unbecoming of heaven, as he grasps a lever by his post. It is understandable, though, as it was he who wrote that our Father is not willing that any should perish, not even these men who wished – and brought – such harm upon one nation under Him. But they have made their choice, and there are consequences to every choice.

“…you may go to your reward.”

He pulls it. They fall, screaming, toward the abyss.

And for all I know, they are falling still.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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