An Act of Pure Evil

In writing my blog and posting on Facebook I have tried to avoid the political realm. This time I would like to make an exception.

The Bret Stephens column in the Wall Street Journal of September 6, 2011 struck a chord with me. I think that his central point is worth repeating here, and pondering as we look back on September 11, 2001. That day has its own sobering meaning for me; I flew out of Boston early that morning to attend a trade show in Atlanta.  I began the day one airline terminal distant from the mass murderers.

Stephens takes issue with the way that we – or most of us in America, anyway – have come to remember and refer to September 11, 2001. As someone who works every day to use our wondrous English language as effectively as possible, I agree with him when he writes, “An act of evil has been reduced, in our debased parlance, to a ‘tragedy.’”

He also rightly points out that while 9/11 was a day of monumental loss, it was also a day of extraordinary love and giving. He cites the first responders, the heroic and courageous “Let’s roll” passengers of Flight 93, the volunteers, emergency crews, and those inside the buildings who helped others and managed to save individual lives.

Earlier, on my Facebook page, I posted a link to ESPN’s beautiful story of the man in the red bandanna, Welles Crowther, Boston College lacrosse player. He is credited with saving at least a dozen people that day. If you have not yet seen it, find it on YouTube.

Stephens says that our remembrance of September 11 should largely be to reflect on, and be thankful for, those selfless people. Agree. If we all strive to emulate them, in ways large and small, our world will be a better place.

He goes on to remind us of a deeper danger here, and I believe he’s correct.

He compares the September 11 attack to the one on Pearl Harbor. In 1941, a comparable number of Americans lost their lives. While the nation mourned, it also responded. The day became a “bookend” in a war that was fought with a clear purpose and righteous resolve.  But 9/11 is an event that has no corresponding bookend; we don’t know whether we’re early, late, or somewhere in between in a similar book. In short, 9/11 has become an event unto itself, somehow disconnected from everything that still flows around it.

This way of looking at 9/11/2001has brought about our coming to refer to “the tragic events of 9/11” rather than calling that day what it was, a monstrous act of evil and of war.  Quoting Stephens’ final paragraphs:

“There is something dangerous about this. Dangerous because we risk losing sight of what brought 9/11 about. Dangerous because nations should not send men to war in far-flung places to avenge an outrage and then decide, mid-course, that the outrage and the war are two separate things. Dangerous above all because nations define themselves through the meanings they attach to memories, and 9/11 remains, 10 years on, a memory without a settled meaning.

None of that was true in 1951. We had gone to war to avenge Pearl Harbor. We had won the war. We had been magnanimous in victory. The principal memorial that generation built was formed of the enemies they defeated, the people they saved, the world they built and the men and women they became. Our task on this 9/11 is to strive to do likewise.”

Once again, I agree. American greatness does not reside in its presidents, congress people, actors, CEOs, or athletes.  On September 11, 2001, we saw once again that such greatness lies in ordinary people like you and me who, in times of dire need or extreme peril, performed supererogational acts for their fellow human beings.

My favorite John F. Kennedy quote says that countries define themselves not by the men they produce, but by the men they honor, the men they remember.

Let us resolve to do more than remember, this September 11 and on every one to follow. Let us strive to live our lives as the kind of Americans whom the heroes of September 11, 2001 died to save. If we do, we can still build a world that is another principal, fitting memorial to them.

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