9/11 in perspective

To the Editor:

Last year, I was already struck by the crescendo of emotions triggered by the ninth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers. I was wondering then whether it would be possible to go to an ever greater level of intensity this year. The answer proved to be yes. It has reached a downright feverish level, and everyone even remotely connected with the events of 9/11/01 has been interviewed and questioned again about his/her emotions then and every day since.

Now we hear everywhere that the events of 9/11/01 have reshaped us as a nation. And it seems that it has indeed. But I can’t help asking how the death of 3,000 can define an entire nation of several hundred million and change its values, of which it has been so proud for 200 years and on which it based its claims of moral superiority.

Equally, the term “hero” has become sadly overused in recent years and has been devalued by this overuse. Yes, there were genuine heroes on 9/11, people like the firemen, EMTs, and policemen, who entered the World Trade Center buildings after the bombings in order to try to save lives, fully aware of the fateful danger they were running into. Or the passengers of the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, who knew they were not likely to come out of this alive, but nevertheless gave their all to prevent further deaths at the target area. There were other heroes then and in other historic circumstances, of whom we will never know, but our ignorance of what they did does not diminish their heroism.

But to confuse victimhood with heroism by calling every victim a hero, as has recently become the fashion, is to deny the real heroes their stature. And there is nothing wrong with being a victim.

Similarly, playing up the victims of 9/11 in an unreasonable way vis-à-vis victims of other crimes is showing disrespect to all these other victims of murder or catastrophe, innocent victims of school shootings or other massacres. It demotes them to mere collateral damage, roadkill as it were. How is the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq or Afghanistan to feel? Or a kid shot at school? Let us not forget that each death is a totality to the one who suffers it.

On the positive side, we have also heard from family members of the 9/11 victims and those of the Lockerbie bombing that they are rejecting the temptation to sacrifice their lives to feelings of bitterness, hate, and revenge.

In our industrial era illusion that man can do anything he wants to, in other words that he is omnipotent, we have lost the realization that there are things that are beyond human power to achieve, foresee, or avoid. Some call this space beyond our reach God; others call it fate. Be that as it may, we have lost the capacity to recognize it and make our best of what is left. People have long asked themselves from where the Russians, for instance, take their seemingly endless capacity to deal with suffering throughout history. Their acceptance of fate, or reality, has enabled them to do so.

Even when we suffer the unbearable, the sun will rise again the next day, indifferent to whether we can deal with it or not.

But getting caught up permanently in an injustice that has been done to us can turn out to be a terrible trap and lead to further catastrophes and crimes. Just think of how the Versailles Treaty contributed to the rise of national socialism in Germany, how the horror of the atrocities committed by the Christian liberators of the Holy Sepulchre still resonates in the Arab consciousness, or the way the memory of the Battle of the Kosovo Fields in 1389 exacerbated the recent Bosnian War. We incredulously shook out heads about that, but we should rather take it as a lesson of what to avoid.

The German poet Friedrich Schiller expressed this danger very cogently in the verse: “It is the curse of the evil deed/That it must endlessly go on/Spawning its terrible like.”

Thus it becomes vitally important for mankind’s future — if we want one — to break the vicious cycle rather than perpetuate it.

As I wrote this on September 13, I happened to hear an account by a guard who was taken hostage at the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State exactly 40 years ago. He told of how the Muslim inmates protected him against other prisoners. Our fellow citizens who have developed a blind prejudice against all Muslims from the events of 9/11/01 would do well to take note.

Brigitte Lent