One day, one
by Adam Tanous
span of time many of us have spent daydreaming on a given day 2,807
people vanished. All of the intricate detail of so many lives was simply
year later, it is difficult to find a perspective on Sept. 11 that
offers the clarity we seek. We are caught somewhere between groping for
some higher meaning of the event and letting the free flow of grief and
anger wash over us. In one regard, we are beholden to the dead to
grieve, document, even contemplate the final, grim moments of lives
ended in such bright and full bloom. In another, we yearn to move
forward, to show the world the depth and breadth of our strength.
nature, this is a nation of sunny disposition—a nation in which
optimism was not only its very premise but has been its lifeblood since
its birth. And over the course of one long year we have learned that
underlying that cheery veneer is a country of rich soul. Generosity,
hope, empathy: These are the values that have sprouted in the ashes of
first few days after the attacks, there was a curious phenomenon of
people relaying stories of a friend of a friend or a second cousin who
had a meeting scheduled in the towers but didn’t show for it, or who
got stuck in traffic and missed one of the doomed flights. There was a
strange compulsion to be close—though not too close—to the carnage,
as if proximity to such tragedy makes us better people. I don’t think
it does, but the impulse was there nonetheless. It may have been, too,
an acknowledgment of the inscrutable if not random nature of fate.
I tend to
think, rather, it was an attempt to connect to one another, to reaffirm
a broader sense of community, something that always has a way of healing
us. For all of our celebration of individuality, we are, ultimately, a
social bunch. When our world disintegrates around us, we seek the
comfort and meaning provided by the connection to others. That not
withstanding, I doubt anyone has really come to comprehend the enormity
of 2,807 innocent people being murdered. How could we?
can understand is the gravity of a single death. And for those of us
removed from the scenes of death by place and time—which is the
majority of the country—what is our obligation to understand that kind
of horror? In short, I think it is a profound one.
strongest moments and for a terrifying instant, we might imagine the
death of one dearest to us, someone who lends meaning and purpose to our
lives, who we know, deep down, completes us in ways we could never
complete ourselves. If only for the tiniest instant, we must try to
understand, to walk in those dreadful shoes.
we do such a thing? Because with sympathy comes compassion. And
compassion is one of the few indestructible foundations of our humanity.
the world changed on Sept. 11 is not quite right. Our perceptions of it
certainly have. But the human capacity to do evil and good is probably
no different from what it was a year and a day ago. The Nazis, Stalin,
Idi Amin, Pol Pot all did much worse in terms of a conscious effort to
kill vast numbers of innocent people. But, of course, this happened to
us, and so seems more malevolent than other atrocities. It isn’t.
Murder is an absolute not relative transgression.
particular nemesis did, however, show a certain guile in choosing
targets. No doubt they aimed to kill as many Americans as possible. But
their target choices were also symbolic ones. Presumably their hope was
that by taking away common symbols of America—bastions of military,
business and political strength—they might take away more than lives.
came up short.
they thought our national concept of self was more grounded in symbols,
more superficial than it is. What they didn’t have a sense of is the
fineness and intricate nature of the weave that holds the country
together, the idea beneath the symbols.
I think it may fruitless to search too hard for grand revelations and
understanding from such events. Epiphanies usually come slowly through
the accretion of experience and contemplation. And the moments of
greatest insight often lie in the subtleties of an event, the little
actions at the edges of great calamity. For me that moment was something
that happened on Flight 93, the airliner heading for Washington—it is
surmised for the White House or the Capitol—but one that ended up
crashing into the hills of Pennsylvania.
It is now
widely known that after the hijackers had taken over the cockpit, the
passengers huddled together in the aft of the plane and decided to storm
the cockpit unarmed, of course, and attack the hijackers. Surely they
realized that what they were about to do verged on suicide—but then
there were thousands of lives on the ground that they might save by
diverting the plane.
ended up acting heroically is remarkable, but what I find more profound—and
this speaks to that fine weave binding us together—is how people
arrive at such an action. How does heroism take root in a group of
answer, absolutely unknowable to our enemy, was so simple and obvious to
the passengers. They fell back on their most basic, almost intuitive,
understanding of how a society, no matter how small or disparate,
proceeds in the world: They voted.
people were not politicians or history scholars, just average Americans
who have lived and breathed democracy for all of their days.
true conviction: a chance to live by democracy, but a far greater chance
to die by democracy. Faced with the decision of a lifetime, that handful
of scared strangers huddled together in the back of a plane and cast
their votes. As it turned out in that shining moment of democracy
transpiring so high above us, the yeas carried the day.