A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
I had dinner last night with a man who was in Manhattan on 9-11. He saw the second plane; he smelled the burning steel and fuel; he wintessed the death and mayhem. Driving home I recalled another dinner I had with my father decades ago, where somehow we got talking about Pearl Harbor. My Dad was an articulate and educated man, but he could not capture for me the reaction that the country experienced upon news of the attack. He tried to convey what it was like as he huddled around the radio with his parents and siblings, listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt give his famous address to Congress.
We all have our memories of 9-11, and as the number of Americans who have first-hand memories of Pearl Harbor declines, 9-11 will stand as our singular collective memory of the United States of America being attacked by a hostile foreign power.
Winston Churchill once said that "All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope".
As I think of 9-11 and peel back the emotional onion layers of what that day holds for us, I try and think of Churchill's "great things". Images that recall the unimaginable courage of the men and women of the NYFD - people who ran UP the staircases as maelstroms of fire, concrete, steel, and death poured down. An itinerant taxi driver stopping to comfort a Wall Street Executive. A mother clutching her child to her bosom, as the raw scenes of death and mayhem revealed with savage clarity the things that really matter in life.
But I also use the memory of 9-11 to try and put complex and incredibly difficult issues into a sense of focus. In my view there are realities about 9-11 that some don't want to confront. Worse, as evidenced by the sad case of Professor Ward Churchill, there are those who would contort these realities into such a mosh of post-modern psycho-babble as to have us think of OURSELVES as the guilty party, a party who actaully DESERVED this "rough justice". What a sad irony that this small-minded and hate-filled man would share the same name of the great Statesman.
The personal loss and tragedies of this horrific event can only be experienced on an individual level. But on a national level we can look back on 9-11 and use it to remind ourselves of a few things. 9-11 serves as a reminder that there ARE such things as right and wrong. 9-11 reminds us that there is such a thing as EVIL in the world, and that it requires a response from us, both individually and collectively. It reminds us of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn told us - that evil resides not in countries or polticial systems or creeds, but rather that it resides in the human heart on an individual by individual basis. It reminds us that there is a DIFFERENCE between people who board a bus to get across town, and those who get on a bus with C-4 strapped to their bodies.
There are DIFFERENCES in the world. There are DIFFERENCES in belief systems. There ARE such things as good and evil, and choosing one vs. the other is an individual responsibility that MATTERS.
My father's generation would not have felt the need to articulate such things - they viewed them as self-evident.
Why have we lost the courage to say so?
Perhaps recovering some of that courage is the best way to honor the dead of 9-11.