Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Beneath the horror of 9/11 is the truth.

Once again the anniversary of 9/11 has come upon us. It was one of those moments where the deepest character of the individuals involved became visible to the whole world.

It took only hours before stories of great heroism unfolded. Yet these heroes, seconds before, were considered relatively normal individuals, leading rather mundane lives. Some were fire fighters and police officers. Others were just passengers on a plane, office workers, people who just happened to be present when something horrific happened.

Some see heroes as Promethean giants moving worlds with the touch of a finger. They are great entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators. and such: men and women who change the world between breakfast and lunch.

To my knowledge, none of the heroes of 9/11 were such giants. Under normal circumstances they were not people who would warrant a column inch of newspaper coverage over the span of their lives. Yet, in the face of a tragedy they rose up, seemingly out of thin air, and did things that astound us and move us.

We have grown used to the story of individual heroism. Someone is thrust into a circumstance and reacts in a way that we all admire. But 9/11 was a tragedy on such a massive scale that what we witnessed was something rarely seen: a case of mass heroism. It wasn’t just one person, here or there, who stood out, but dozens and dozens of people. And, I suspect, for each story that we heard about, there were many more that were never acknowledged or publicized.

What is greatness? What is it that makes one man a hero while another sits dumbfounded doing nothing?

As I considered the stories of 9/11 I drew a basic conclusion: greatness is simple goodness in the face of extraordinary circumstances.

The heroes of 9/11 were not heroes on September 10th. Yet in one way they were. These were not people who had sudden conversions of their character when those planes hit the Twin Towers. They were good people before the crisis. And they reacted as good people react. Faced with unusual circumstances their basic character required them to respond in a specific way. The hero of today is the good man or woman of yesterday.

Too often we neglect to respect basic goodness and decency. We may even joke about it. The odd, but old, term “goody two shoes” is often applied to them. But basic decency is the embryo of greatness.

Most good people are not thrust by events into a circumstance of drama or tragedy. Most live ordinary lives and never attract attention to themselves. Only under rare circumstances, thankfully, does the good develop into the great.

And this reminds me that each day we are surrounded by ordinary people who, if circumstances demanded it, would rise to the heights of their character. There are some people who believe that man is innately sinful and evil. I am not one of them. The idea that “there are none that do good, no not one” is itself indicative of the other side of human nature -- the cruel and the evil that man is capable of doing or believing.

Some are evil and wicked. I have had my share of such people. The louts, the cruel, the vile, the drunken vindictive types who destroy and attack others. What sad, pathetic creatures they are. But this is not how most people act. Most people are decent and good. And I suspect that a large percentage of them would rise to levels of heroism which would even astound them if they were thrust into circumstances requiring it.

Those men on the planes, drunk with religious fanaticism, are too often made the focus of 9/11. The actions, or inactions of politicians that day, are given too much importance. For each person who did great evil, or who did nothing, there were many who acted well beyond what anyone would have thought possible.

Some people prefer to think of the 9/11 as proving the evil nature of humanity. I see it differently. That day we saw immense courage and human decency. Men and women, who didn’t have to do so, tried desperately to help others. No one would have faulted them if they left. I think of a young man, a Libertarian activist, who worked as a police officer. That morning he had gone into the police station to finalize his resignation. But, only minutes before his resignation would have become official, the attack took place. He withdrew his resignation and went to the Twin Towers to help evacuate people. It was there that he died.

I think of the thousands of people trapped in the upper levels of the buildings, or in hijacked airplanes, who knew that in minutes they would be dead. How did they react? The human-haters have invented scenarios showing man running wild when he knows that death awaits him -- as if we don’t already know that. But that is not how people acted that day.

With cellphones they called their homes and left their last messages. From the airplanes hurtling toward oblivion they dialed wives, husbands, lovers, parents, children, all those that mattered to them, just to have one last chance to say: “I love you.”

With death looming over their shoulders so many that day only tried to help. They reached out to give assistance to others. So many more wanted their last words to be those of affection and love. I want to remember these people. I want to remember how good people became great people. I want to remember that what binds us together is the love we feel.

I want to remember that around me, no matter where I am, there are good and loving people. I know that every day I pass individuals, who, if thrust into similar circumstances, would become heroes. The horrors of 9/11 drove home a point that I believe deep in the recesses of my being: most people are good, and loving and kind. Don’t come preaching to me about man’s sinful nature. Take your sermons somewhere else. I’ve seen your kind before. They were flying the planes that day.
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