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Sunday, September 11, 2011
September 11 Reflections

Our barbarian enemies think our being different means we deserve to die. We civilized folk have much more subtle and much less violent ways of abusing people for being different.

First, the Heroes

After ten years my first thoughts about September 11, 2001, are the same as they were on that day: of our heroes. I think first of the heroes who ran into the fire. I think next of those splendid, ordinary New Yorkers, who, as Paul Greenberg noted, "would happily trample their fellow man on an ordinary day, but [who on this day] were rushing to help however they could." I've been fond of New Yorkers for decades, but one decade ago today, I was unspeakably proud of them.

To be sure, I have almost nothing new to write about the heroes of 9/11; I still want to say, but will not repeat here, just what I wrote before, with only these two small addenda.

I read this week and recommend the story of two Air Force pilots who scrambled their unarmed F-16s -- the only combat aircraft available -- to bring down Flight 93 short of its target. There was no time to arm their jets with missiles or bullets, so they planned to attack the Boeing 757 in the only way they could: by ramming it, almost certainly at the cost of their own lives. As they hastily suited up, Col. Marc Sasseville said he'd take the airliner's cockpit. His wingman -- well, not wingman -- Lt. Heather Penney said she'd take the tail. As you know, the passengers -- more heroes -- brought down the jet before the F-16 pilots had to. But I don't doubt that these two pilots would have done it.

I also recommend Peggy Noonan's Friday column, which ends with this eloquence:

They tell us to get over it, they say to move on, and they mean it well: We can't bring an air of tragedy into the future. But I will never get over it. To get over it is to get over the guy who stayed behind on a high floor with his friend who was in a wheelchair. To get over it is to get over the woman by herself with the sign in the darkness: "America You Are Not Alone." To get over it is to get over the guys who ran into the fire and not away from the fire.

You've got to be loyal to pain sometimes to be loyal to the glory that came out of it.

Not a Day for Politics

My thoughts run next to politics, policy, warfare, and the endless, captivating details of history. While others have gone far away and fought my battles for me, I've read and listened to millions of words about all this, and I've written thousands of words. But this doesn't feel to me like a day for politics. If it does to you, you could read these good essays by Victor Davis Hanson, Rudy GiulianiCharles Krauthammer, and George Will, who apply the benefit of hindsight to ten years of history, including the warfare and the politics. If not today, perhaps you might read them soon.

Only with difficulty can I drag my thoughts beyond these matters, even today. When I finally succeed, I find myself in a different place entirely. Before I describe it, allow me to assure you that I am not saying 9/11 was our fault. It was mass murder, an act of war by an enemy. It was not collective justice. There is no confusion or ambiguity in my mind on this point.

Ideology and Flawed Character

I find myself pondering the ideologies and the character flaws which combine to make some humans think that they have the right, or even the duty, to kill people who think and believe differently. This barbarism horrifies us, as it should. Even we who still think some things are worth dying for recoil at the idea of killing not in self-defense, but to advance our ideology among those who reject it. We are justly repulsed by ideologies and acts which deny the humanity of humans who look or think differently.

Imagine how much different the twentieth century would have been, had evil people not committed mass murder in the name of their beliefs (religious or otherwise). September 11, 2001, was a clear warning that the present century may not necessarily be less brutal than the previous one in this respect, and that ideologically motivated mass murder did not disappear with the fall of Soviet communism.

We congratulate ourselves for being more civilized than these murderers. We are more civilized, and civilization is very much the issue. We are embroiled in a global war between civilization and militant, self-righteous barbarism.

Yet we should not be surprised that the human mind and heart, sufficiently distorted and inflamed, can justify to themselves the killing of people simply for being different and wishing to remain so. Without looking beyond the borders of our nation or even our neighborhoods, we can see much more civilized people, very much like ourselves, mistreating people in far less deadly ways, but for the same reason: they are somehow different.

I must emphasize the vast and crucial difference in degree between the abuses we often see among us and the evil zeal which condemns whole skyscrapers or even whole nations full of supposed infidels to death. There is no moral equivalency between the mass murderers of 9/11 and the local neighborhood gossip, bully, or bigot. But this overwhelming difference is quantitative, not qualitative. We will have advanced considerably further as a civilization when we are horrified by cases of the same disease which are not violent or immediately deadly.

The dominant pathology of this moral disease is the conviction that someone who is different is therefore less deserving of -- and here we might fill in the blank a dozen different ways. In the sick minds of some extremists, people who choose to think, worship, or live differently do not deserve to live. Less evil but still dangerous villains might think that differences justify physical violence, or at least the threat of it. A certain species of self-righteous bigot will concede a different person's right to live, and would never approve violence, but will prefer that person to live elsewhere. A host of legal means have been used to try to enforce such things, but these days they don't usually withstand constitutional scrutiny in the United States.

More commonly, there may simply be tacet encouragement for the different people to pack up and leave. People who would never directly tell someone else to leave are sometimes willing to encourage the same result by ostracizing or simply ignoring a neighbor. They may shower their kind and friendly neighborly attentions on everyone else, but not on the person or family who is somehow different.

We who would never think of hijacking an airliner may nonethless believe that anyone who does not share our politics, our religion, or our personal tastes may be somewhat evil, not just different. So we refuse to let our children play with that different neighbor's children, because his  family does not go to the same church, or does not go to church at all, or has the wrong political views, or sometimes enjoys a beer or a smoke. Instead of strapping on an explosive vest and blowing up his backyard barbecue (family, guests, and all), we simply ignore him and neglect to invite him to our own barbecue, and maybe whisper a morsel or two of gossip about him to the other neighbors. We may do nothing to stop our children from making his children's lives difficult at school and on the playground. He may be a master craftsman with a well-established reputation for honesty, but we will not hire him, because his accent and his religious roots are different -- perhaps from somewhere far away, like Boston, instead of Salt Lake City.

If this "different" neighbor were engaging in criminal activity, a hostile response would be warranted, not to mention a call to local law enforcement. But when we marginalize people of good character, simply because they have different beliefs, backgrounds, or tastes, we are feeding something we really should not want to grow. It probably will never grow up into some sort of extremist jihad. But it doesn't have to grow much to hurt people in smaller ways.

When we nurture our prejudices instead of our neighbors, or cultivate anger, fear, or indifference instead of friendship; when we take opportunities for tolerance, understanding, or forgiveness and pervert them into causes for hostile words or actions; when we find joy or satisfaction in others' pain, sorrow, or even destruction; when we overlook our neighbors' moral virtues and focus instead on what we judge to be their moral vices -- when we do any of these things, we move ourselves and our society ever so slightly away from civilization, toward barbarism.


Our civilization is already vastly different from the ideals of the bloody tyrants who would replace it with their medieval barbarism. If we want to make our own difference in honor of today's anniversary, perhaps we could labor between now and the next anniversary to make our own neighborhoods, ahem, a little different -- so that they are not just vastly different from the barbarians' vision, as now, but completely different. The heroes who rushed into the fire on September 11 did not stop to consider the victims' religion, politics, gender, skin color, grooming habits, or sexual orientation. In the highest sense, they were neighbors to all their neighbors.

In these heroes' honor -- if we can find no other reason -- we could be neighbors to all our neighbors, despite differences in religious beliefs or practices, political convictions, economic level, age, education, accent, fashion sense, musical tastes, or any of the other things which we foolishly allow to divide us. I don't have to adopt your views, your tastes, or your chosen lifestyle to be your neighbor, or for you to be mine. But I must do more than tolerate you. I must value you as a human being. I must be all my neighbors' neighbor.

People who have learned to be neighbors to all their neighbors, despite differences, do not fly airliners into skyscrapers, and they don't volunteer to be suicide bombers. They don't beat up people for being black or white or even gay. They don't mock or ignore people for looking, talking, or worshipping differently, or for being old or young or tall or short or fat or thin.

Neighbors thus fully civilized don't start the fire, cheer the fire, or even hope for the fire. But they run into the fire, figuratively and sometimes literally, as on September 11. They may not be recognized as heroes on the network news, but in their quiet way they are heroes to their neighbors. They are the best that our civilization has to offer. They are the best evidence that civilization itself is worth saving.

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