In the stunning wake of Monday’s bombings in Boston, I received a number of messages asking me if I would consider repeating one more time the column I wrote on September 12, 2001 that was published in my book in the chapter, Lost Boundaries.
While our country’s ability to muster well-honed emergency and forensic support for horrific moments like this has improved significantly, I couldn’t help but wonder at what cost to our peace of mind and liberty, along with how many times I will have to re-iterate the following thoughts because, in the end, the questions remain the same: What are you willing to die for and how much do you value your freedom?
Here it is in full:
On September 11, 2001, every American lost something they will never regain.
During the months that followed, countless letters arrived from readers who were and still are struggling with emotions ranging from shock, terror and bewilderment to rage, revenge and intense grief.
Sadly, some of us lost more that day than others. But we all lost something in common. Our sense of living in safe harbor, protected, beyond reach, untouchable.
We have endured unspeakable carnage before, from the Revolution through the Civil War and on into this century with obscenities like Selma and Oklahoma City and Waco and Columbine. But this was different. The scope of it, the magnitude of it, was different.
Never before had our entire nation been subjected to a unilateral loss of security and privacy in one swift moment. Now, our new reality contained long lines at airport security, endless searches, document scrutiny, and increased profiling. Suddenly planes, trains and subways, always thought of as mindless conveniences to get us where we wanted to go as quickly as possible, became threatening coffins offering us, if we took the risk and boarded, a chance to play Russian roulette with a faceless man sitting in 26C.
I am certain that no American will ever forget where they were that terrible morning, for there are moments in life that are recalled not by “do you remember when?” but by “where were you when you heard?”
September 11, 2001 was just such a day for me, much like the morning John F. Kennedy was assassinated or Martin Luther King was murdered.
Until then, few moments in my life had left me speechless. Yet that morning, as I watched in horror as terror slammed into the heart of my country, no voice emerged to quiet my own nightmare, much less comfort those I love. I had no answer why. I could think of no rationale or explanation to console or ameliorate the pain or fear that I saw on every face.
All I could do was listen, anesthetized by the endless flicker of the television screen and strangely soothed by Peter Jennings’s gentle intelligence trying to help me make some sense out of senselessness.
At that moment, there was no thought to write anything. Good god, no! The whole idea of ethical choice, of responsible power and moral consciousness, was left hanging in mid-air, just like me, suspended like a doll with stuffing half-gone and one eye missing.
To all the reports, to all the developments, I couldn’t even respond internally with “Oh. I see.” I couldn’t see, couldn’t think, couldn’t feel. The bad B-movie of that plane disappearing into Tower Two of the World Trade Center kept replaying, even in my sleep.
When the questions and calls began, from readers, from friends, and most importantly, from my daughters and loved ones, the enormity as well as the fragility of the ethical dilemma we were all caught up in really hit home hard. So for days, I wandered around, slightly dazed, not wanting to talk or be around others, and not able to think. I just needed to be. Be quiet. Be sad. Be angry. But most of all, just be.
When every American awakened on September 12, 2001, they arose to a new reality. No longer able to assume their borders were impenetrable, they discovered that destruction had carved a path deeper and broader and more far-reaching than what met the visible eye.
Our hearts were stricken and our souls were numbed. Our heads were mindless and our senses couldn’t take in what we saw and heard and felt. We had been virginal, untouched, safe. Now nothing was the same.
For days, it was as if the entire heartbeat of our nation converged and wafted upward from a smoking, hellish plot of land at the base of New York. It throbbed and glowed night and day, biding us to watch and wait; hypnotizing us with its horror.
And as more time passed and the twisted steel and soot turned hope into despair, we still sat and stared, willing the numbers rescued to rise and those lost to shrink.
Rescue turned into recovery. Days became weeks and then months. Tears and grief and lamentation turned to stricken, stoic acceptance and we all went on. But nothing was the same.
For myself, as time moved forward and my country’s position began to be articulated in familiar yet strangely new terms, my irrepressible optimism began to shout out against my numbness and tears.
“Look!” it proclaimed. “Out of unspeakable horror there’s a glimmer of hope, a shudder of promise.”
“Listen!” it yelled, “This is no longer a contest between nations; the line being drawn is just like The Inner Bottom Line! Now it’s about values. About beliefs and morality. About civilization and barbarism. Maybe there’s real hope for the first time. Maybe some good will really come out of all this evil.”
Maybe. Then there was silence again and I was left in the stillness, pondering, waiting.
With each new morning, the unconscious movements of life – brushing teeth, making coffee, getting dressed, reading the mail – began to propel me into a semblance of normalcy and routine. And all the jumbled thoughts and feelings that had been racing around in my head began to take sides and argue amongst themselves. Right or wrong. Good or evil. Moral or obscene. Respect, fairness, honesty, integrity. Only four words, four values. Ethics summed up like a shopping list.
Late one evening, my oldest daughter called and spoke to me at length about her own personal conflict and pain in the face of these atrocities. Both of my grown daughters are strongly opposed to war and killing – for any reason. And oh, how I respect their values and ethics.
As she continued to talk, remembering the pride she had felt at being an American while spending three months volunteering in Africa in The Gambia, she had grown very emotional, reflecting on how privileged she was to live in this country and have such freedom and opportunity. Yet she opposed going to war and killing. It wasn’t an answer to anything.
I had remained silent. Then, in the stillness, she had asked me if women were ever drafted, would I go? I had paused, thinking how strange and old, how generational I felt to have my own child, born in the heart of the 60’s, ask me this dusty but familiar question.
And then I had realized that there was no issue, no dilemma, here. Not really. At least not for me. We all know what’s right and good, moral and fair. Doing it is a whole other matter. And while we can argue over the correct prescription, no one disagrees about the sickness. It’s not about being right or fair. Nor about being honest or moral.
No, it’s much more than that. Being attacked changed all of that. So I had answered my child’s question with this simple thought. “Doesn’t the privilege of pride carry with it the responsibility of protection?”
And with refreshed clarity, I knew then that I would do whatever I could to help my country prevail. For if I’m going to enjoy the privilege of being an American, and all that provides – the inestimable freedom, the endless choices, the opportunities as well as the sense of security – then isn’t my part of the deal to stand up and protect Lady Liberty when someone tries to blow her skirts off?
A few days later that galvanized sense of patriotism sat me down to face another empty page. I’d always known, without exception, that if someone threatened either of my children, I would throw myself in front of them without thought or hesitation. But now, it had sort of come to that in an unexpected way.
For wasn’t that where we were? Wasn’t the bottom line question: “What were we willing to die for? What did we cherish enough to give our lives to sustain?”
In the end it came down to the one ethical value that is always the hardest to define or grasp. Integrity. A standard of behavior. And an unwillingness to allow abuse of any kind.
For each of us, September 11th offered a rare opportunity to discover just what comprised the fabric of our own personal integrity. Our personal statement about our beliefs, our fears and the list of those things and people we cherished most and would give our lives to protect so that they could continue to live on.
You can submit your questions or book private phone sessions with Olive at theinnerbottomline.com, explore her new blog at whatskeepingyouawakeatnight.com, or call into her blogtalkradio.com show, “The Inner Bottom Line,” at 661-449-1425 with your questions. All letters and calls can be anonymous and confidential.
Kindle and audio versions along with the hard cover of Olive’s book, The Nude Ethicist: A Simple Path to The Good Life, are now available on amazon.com.