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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 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. 

For the week of September 11 - 17, 2002

Opinion Columns

One day, one life, 
one idea

Commentary by Adam Tanous

In the 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 wiped out.

Even a 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.

By 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 destruction.

In the 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?

What 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.

In our 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.

Why would we do such a thing? Because with sympathy comes compassion. And compassion is one of the few indestructible foundations of our humanity.

To say 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.

Our 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.

But they came up short.

Perhaps 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.

At times 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.

That they 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 strangers?

The 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.

These people were not politicians or history scholars, just average Americans who have lived and breathed democracy for all of their days.

This was 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.



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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.