March 11, 2002
As much as I wanted to talk about other things and not recognize the six-month anniversary of September 11, it just isn’t possible. That date and those events are more alive in my mind than I would have expected, and that’s why it demands to be acknowledged.
It’s an event that, temporarily anyway, changed our perception of the world. I think it will still be some time before we return to the understanding that life goes on and our wonder at just how extraordinary our communities and our country are comes back to us.
I have often been a critic of my country’s culture and government; sometimes, when I was younger, I lost the idea of what is also great about America.
Hindus and Muslims are still rioting in India with fatal regularity; neighbors slaughter each other over ancient tribal and irrational impulses. That kind of hatred and violence is still prevalent in Africa, in Serbia and other parts of Eastern Europe. The Middle East, too, seems to breed hatred and intolerance.
When it was assured that the attacks of six months ago had been committed by Islamic fundamentalists, I found myself very worried about how we in our communities would treat our many Muslim neighbors. What happened, in fact, was a great testament to America’s comfort with its extraordinary diversity and, I think, our unique compassion for others. Around the country, there were a few horrible attacks on innocent Muslim citizens. But, as reported by the American Muslim community, for each of those attacks there were tens of thousands of acts of kindness extended from non-Muslims to their Muslim neighbors.
Isn’t it interesting that, simultaneous with the rage and bloodlust that some felt, we also, as a country, dug deep and allowed ourselves to be compassionate?
Here in the Hudson Valley — a community that suffered the great losses that day in New York — there was not one attack against a Muslim neighbor.
During difficult times, we were reminded that heroism is found in the acts of ordinary human beings.
There were many heroes that terrible day. Among our police and firefighters there were many, many acts of heroism performed. And I don’t mean to lessen what they did — but they simply did what they were trained to do.
A hero, to me, is someone who does something for which they have to dig very deep into themselves. An act of bravery so selfless, I wonder if I could have done the same thing if placed in the same position.
There were heroes like that on Flight 93 out of Pittsburgh headed for San Francisco. These were people who, in the end, knowingly gave their lives to save others.
One name from that flight comes to mind: Todd Beamer.
Flight 93 was still in the air after the three attacks, so these passengers knew that their plane had been hijacked. Through phone calls to loved ones, they also knew of the other attacks, and so they also knew what the hijackers of their plane intended to do. There was so little time for these few people to react, to say goodbye to their loved ones and then form a plan of action.
By the time the passengers learn of their fate, Flight 93 had already veered off its flight plan and was headed toward our capitol.
In a matter of minutes, the passengers composed and organized themselves, evolving from a group of frightened individuals into a team of warriors with a mission.
The last words heard from one of these men was simply, “Okay, let’s roll.”
It is unlikely that we will ever know the facts of those last few minutes on Flight 93. What we do know is that these brave souls succeeded — that flight didn’t make it to the intended target. Instead, it went down in an empty field in the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. We can never know how many lives these men saved, we can only know of the loss of the forty-three folks on that plane.
The courage of these people is, for me, one of those things that forces me to look inward, to ask myself, “Could I have overcome such fear and terror to act on behalf of others?” Of course, it’s impossible to know the answer. And yet, on the other hand, it is reassuring to know that such courage on the part of a group of ordinary people suggests that the capacity for such courage and selflessness must exist in all of us.
Tragedy must be given meaning and purpose by us all, and I think it can be found in what we learn about ourselves and others. Before 9/11, I didn’t need to learn about how terrible fanaticism is; I had no need to be reminded of the human capacity for violence and evil. After all, there are constant reminders of that everywhere we look. But we all do need to be reminded how much compassion and courage can really do.
One of the great dangers of evil is how we respond to it. If we allow our fear of it to rule us, we can transform ourselves into a mirror image of that which harmed us. You can see that happening in the ever-escalating and seemingly endless violence between the Jews and the Palestinians in Israel.
Americans, I’m proud to say, have so far avoided this. Too many of us just decided what we needed was to know more about this religion, so we sought to understand and to learn.
Most think of America as this great experiment in democracy. For a long time, I have also thought of our country as being a great experiment in diversity, too. Can people of different cultures live in peace with each other and even thrive from the interactions with each other?
As I look around the world today and throughout history, the horrors of tribal warfare stand out. Yet, here in this country, with more different kinds of people from more places than it is impossible to count, we have somehow found a new way to embrace difference.
Now, we heal, we recover, we go on.
My mind regularly dwells on the experience of those brave people on Flight 93 and the understanding of their ordinariness. Their example reminds us to choose selflessness, to choose bravery in the face of incredible odds and to remember that this capacity lies in all of us. In seeing that, we can find it in ourselves.