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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

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For the week of  September 19 - 25, 2001

  Opinion Column

Civility in the 
midst of chaos

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS


As I write this on September 12, I and millions of Americans are still reeling from yesterday's events in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. I certainly don't have anything profound to add to all the words that will be spoken about these acts of terrorism, but I feel compelled to comment on a pattern of behavior I have noticed. By the time this column is published, people may well be sick and tired of thinking about this horrific series of events, but I hope you will indulge me for the brief time it takes to read this column.

In the midst of the horror stories and pontificating, one thing became crystal clear to me: in a crisis, most of us, even the fabled "tough" New Yorkers, behave in a civilized and generous manner. I was reminded of the days after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, when I was living at the epicenter in Northridge. Dire predictions resounded from many platforms; surely, pundits posited, the city would shut down because traffic signals didn't work.

There were images of stranded commuters, road rage, possibly even cars abandoned at intersections. Instead, none of this happened. Californians, so dependent on their automobiles, stopped politely at four-way streets to let other cars through, waited patiently in long lines, and even occasionally helped direct traffic.

First person accounts from World Trade Center survivors confirm that New Yorkers behaved in an admirable fashion as it became clear that leaving those buildings was a wise course of action. Those interviewed almost universally said that the buildings' inhabitants moved in a calm and organized fashion down the hundreds of stories; there was no "soccer stadium" trampling, no stampeding of exits. John Paul De Vito, who led 12 employees down 87 floors of World Trade Center I, said, "If you had seen what it was like in that stairway, you'd be proud. There was no gender, no race, no religion. It was everyone unequivocally, helping each other. I'm sick and tired of hearing on Wall Street that the good guy always finishes last. It's not just that everyone is out for money. I'm so proud of being an American."

New York Mayor Giuilani, whose conduct I personally found remarkable and consistent in its reasoned and strong approach to the distress he was witnessing, said it best on the first night of the disaster, I think, when he praised the fundamental courage and character of his city's inhabitants. I think those qualities are also evident throughout the rest of our country.

One of the reasons I so appreciate living in Idaho is the care and concern I feel from my small-town neighbors. I even feel smug sometimes about the way we are so neighborly in our sheltered valley. However, this last example of the community of man in crisis, in a larger sense, reinforces my more optimistic nature. Perhaps, wherever there is need most of us respond positively.

Of course, monstrous inhumanity created the conditions under which we as a people were once again tested: that is the other side of the coin. There is barbarity; there is evil; there is hatred and prejudice in all corners of the world. None of us is immune from violence. That many people around the world hate the USA is a notion many of us have a hard time grasping. We naively think that our own patriotism is understood by others. Dancing in glee at the news of the successful kamikaze attacks on New York, the Palestinians from the Left Bank were exhibiting ignorance and hatred shared by many. This is not very remote from the Protestants who terrified little Catholic schoolgirls in Ireland just a couple of weeks ago: it is reminiscent of the specter of white Texans dragging a black man behind a car until he died. So, the terrorists who have so wounded our national psyche exist in a historical context.

No one can deny man's inhumanity to man. So, too, though, are there shining examples of the goodness inherent in most of us. What I am thinking today is that perhaps we can focus more on reacting positively to others than giving into our more primitive emotions. I would hope that the person who engages in road rage on Highway 75 could take a deep breath, put his anger in some perspective, and think how he would treat the object of his wrath if that person were in a burning building or perhaps, in an accident on that very stretch of road.

In the face of recent incomprehensible events, what can we do? We can give blood; we can donate money; we can pray; we can gather together; but what else? One small hope emerges, along with the ever-present lesson of any tragedy to cherish ones we love and life itself while we have them. That is that we are capable of wonderful courage and civility. Perhaps our hideous reminder of the better side we can display in a crisis will stick around a little longer than usual. Out of this awful tragedy, then, as people resume daily life and learn to live once again with the terrible knowledge of life's fragility, comes the call to remain kind even to those we don't know, even without a crisis.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.