Remember the Brave
Thoughts on the events of September 11th.
“What can you say about a massacre?” the novelist Kurt Vonnegut once asked about an event he himself had lived through. The answer he gave was in nonsense syllables, because massacres are by definition irrational. And yet here we are, a year after the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, trying to make sense of it.
The reverberations of that day’s events reached all the way to Wofford College, where, like Americans everywhere, we had clustered helplessly in front of our TV screens, watching the horrors transpire. It was several days before we learned that one of our own, a 1959 grad who had been a high school teacher and football coach in Massachusetts, had been aboard one of the planes. He had delayed his flight by a day in order to work on a community service project, a fact that touched us deeply. Months later, when only his hand was found amid the ruins, it was identified by his Wofford College ring.
We had another alum, who as minister at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel, turned his church into a refuge and kitchen for thousands of rescue workers, rising, as so many did in that tragic aftermath, to what the occasion demanded—selfless collaboration.
All of us were heartened by such examples, and many are saying in retrospect that our country will never be the same. But, in Tanzania this summer, I was courteously informed by someone who knows both countries that what happened to us on that day was not so terrible as Rwanda. He said that as a simple fact, not as a challenge. And when I reflected on recent episodes in Bosnia or Sierra Leone or any number of other places, I realized that, for much of the world, what is most distinctive about September 11th is that it happened to us.
There are some in Europe and elsewhere who speak privately of the chastening of the proud, invoking the Tower of Babel, as if what collapsed in New York that day was a symbol of our arrogant excess. It’s true enough that we were stunned by our sudden vulnerability. But those who died that day were innocent men and women, not symbols—people as full of life, of hope and expectation, as any who perished by starvation or machetes in the killing fields of Africa.
And we know that numbers are irrelevant. It is meaningless to say that fifteen times as many people die in traffic accidents every year, or that many more are killed by drunk drivers than by terrorists. Instead, we must ask ourselves what the perpetrators of such deeds could have hoped to accomplish, and what the people who lost their lives, not as victims but as heroes, thought their sacrifice would mean.
Blinded as the killers may have been by hatred and fanaticism, is it conceivable to us that they were driven by what they, rightly or wrongly, perceived as intolerable injustice? Almost certainly they felt that what they valued most was threatened by forces rooted in our culture: openness and freedom.
I think of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania and try to comprehend the minds of those aboard it. If I knew my children, kinsmen, or friends had been killed or dispossessed, their memory erased and their suffering un-avenged, could my resentment fester to the point of madness? Or could I rush the cockpit of a hijacked plane, knowing the result would probably be the deaths of everyone on board but hoping that further suffering and destruction might thereby be avoided?
Both questions are unnerving, but there is a third, far more troubling query: Could I, if I were convinced a government or nation intended to destroy whatever I hold dear, plan and conduct a massacre of thousands of innocent people? I am certain I could not, though I realize it was just such a question Kurt Vonnegut meant to pose about the bombing of Dresden or Tokyo or Hiroshima. Every conflict prompts agonizing questions about what we try to sanitize as “collateral damage.” There are no easy answers, but perhaps, in our willingness to consider them, we move closer to understanding how hatred and resentment, nourished on dogma and propaganda, might lead to unspeakable acts.
Most Americans have forgotten that, in the wave of patriotic hysteria that accompanied our entry into World War I, German-Americans in Milwaukee were assaulted, their businesses looted, and a number of citizens murdered. But many can recall the incarceration of Japanese-Americans at the advent of World War II, and the lesson implicit in both of these self-betrayals takes me back to those who died attempting to help others.
What exactly did those firemen and policemen who sacrificed their lives suppose they were accomplishing? None of those heroes sought to die. None had pledged their lives in a suicidal pact. But they all understood that the principles by which we ought to live, when thrown into the balance, are well worth dying for—and that, at bottom, beyond all moral conundrums or philosophical disquisitions, those principles can be resolved into something as simple as “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Whatever else we remember this week, let it include what they believed.