In Judaism the day begins in the evening and the day before is known as erev. So, as I write this it is erev 9/11 and its 20th anniversary is a day of contemplation.
As an analyst and a scholar, I have many thoughts on what happened and what has come since. I’ll save them for the day after. The day itself is a tragedy, it is not the day for geopolitics. It is a day when lives were shattered and evil was done. When many lives are lost, it is near impossible to maintain perspective. The spark that makes people alive is sacred, as the ancient rabbis taught: Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.
The converse is true, when a life is destroyed, so is a world. That was 9/11 many lives snuffed out, some instantly and many horribly.
I wrote a review of the 9/11 Commission Report, which policy aside, is a careful and compelling description of the day. One line continued to echo for me, from page 300: The first FDNY fatality of the day occurred at approximately 9:30, when a civilian landed on and killed a fireman near the intersection of West and Liberty streets.
It was an evil day, and yet so much evil has occurred since, the world was bright on September 10, 2001. Today, two decades later, we see 9/11 was just the beginning of a seeming unending series of tragedies. Even if terrorism and the pandemic fade, climate change is beginning to wreak massive destruction, which will have tragic geopolitical implications.
When things seem hopeless, one can do worse than turn to Fred Rogers, who was wise and gentle, and saw those qualities in all of us. He said his mother told him to look for the helpers.
On 9/11 we saw the helpers. I take heart in this. Evil resides in the souls of people. But so does the desire to help. It is deep and profound. Why would anyone rush into a burning collapsing skyscraper to save someone they don’t know. (It isn’t just for the money, not when the situation is that treacherous)? What about the multitudes who spontaneously appeared to donate blood? And of course the heroism on Flight 93.
Or today, what about all of the people who have stepped up to help Afghans come here, many of them spontaneously and self-organizing in dynamic, creative ways?
Things are bad now. But are people all bad, inherently? There is a desire to help, how can we make it easier? How do we translate that to addressing the problems and tragedies that are so much bigger than any of us? This is not easy to do (I’m a policy specialist, I know this.) But the fact that the capacity exists at all gives some hope.
Right now, we need hope, so look for the helpers.