Friday, September 10, 2010

Remember the Morning

Nine years ago today, our world changed. On the morning of September 11, 2001, four hijacked airliners crashed into targets in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, killing 3,000 innocent people. The reasons and consequences would emerge in the weeks that followed – indeed, they are still unfolding in theatres of war around the world – but on that fateful day, the most we knew was that tragedy had struck and life would never be the same.

Everyone has images they recall of 9/11. Perhaps it is the planes hitting the World Trade Center, or flames rising from the Pentagon, or people clinging to the glass outside smoldering skyscrapers, or leaping to their deaths hand in hand.

For me, the image that keeps returning is a man in a dark suit, maybe 100 floors up, hanging from the outside of one of the World Trade towers. He has what appears to be an umbrella, which he hooks to the frame of a shattered window as he tries to swing from a burning office to the floor below. It is a pitiful scene – a desperate man with inadequate tools, unprepared for his final moments. He loses his grip and departs this life.

I wonder, as he fell, did he curse, or pray? Did he think of his children, if he had any? We can never know.

1,616 death certificates were issued without a body at the World Trade Center site. Of the approximately 20,000 body parts collected there, among the most affecting was a man’s large fist, clenched around a tiny hand.

Today, and in years to come, how will we mark this date? Will we don black arm bands and read the names of the dead? Will we observe moments of silence and prayer? Perhaps, and rightly so.

Some will want to discuss political, cultural, and historical matters of varied importance – foreign wars, recrimination for past acts, and so on – but today is about those who died on September 11, 2001. In what way should we honour them?

Maybe we should remember how survivors and citizens behaved on 9/11, in contrast to the manner in which the innocent were taken from us.

The victims of 9/11 were not killed by accident. They were murdered. And everyone who died that day was the most important person in the world to someone.

How can we contemplate and counter so great an evil, that would bring such death and pain to so many people?

As then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani observed at the time, “We have met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity.” That is the strongest legacy of this tragic date.

Examples of 9/11 heroism abound, from firefighters and police who ran into burning buildings, even as others were running out, to the passengers of United Flight 93, who crashed their hijacked plane into a field in Pennsylvania, rather than let it strike some target or civilian-populated area in Washington, DC.

As for humanity, there are countless instances, large and small, of people reaching out to one another – from strangers offering their homes to stranded travelers, to those who ensured their co-workers were safe before evacuating, to people watching the news and simply appreciating their loved ones a little more.

A banner on one of the myriad 9/11 remembrance websites shows an image of the September sky, emblazoned with the words, “Remember the morning.” To be sure, this is a call to remember each precious life lost. But it also reminds us of the things people did and felt as the tragedy unfolded.

The nobility of the human spirit rose above the rubble, even before the sun had set that day. 9/11 will always be with us, and to honour the dead, we embrace courage and compassion. Most of all, we hold fast to hope. Even in our darkest moments, when we stare deep into the face of fear and recognize the smirk of evil, we can know that there is still good in the world. For that, we may be thankful, and remember the morning.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What Does Victory Look Like?

Sixty-five years ago today, World War II officially came to an end. On September 2, 1945, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu boarded the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay and signed the Instrument of Surrender in front of American General Douglas MacArthur.

It was a formal and solemn ceremony, coming weeks after atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, concluding six years of warfare, with some 70 nations fighting on three continents.

Today, we find ourselves in another global conflict, and it is broadly understood that there will be no such official declaration if and when we win.

Who would sign the surrender, and where? Would Osama bin Laden apply his imprimatur to some document at Ground Zero, perhaps in the Great Hall of Faisal Abdul Rauf’s planned “community center”?

In 1945, Japan’s leaders, like countless signatories to surrenders of centuries past, were agreeing on behalf of an entire population that hostilities would cease. In today’s war, where terrorist cells attack civilian and military targets all over the world, no leader is empowered to make that peace, even if he cared to.

Without a surrender, how will we know when we have won? Victory will take years, if we can manage it, but what will it look like and how do we achieve it?

Military might alone cannot win this war. And so, the adage goes, we will conquer by the strength of our ideas. Swell – but what’s that mean?

Often, the delineation of “our ideas” takes one of two forms. First, there are people like me, banging on about “freedom,” whatever that might be. Or, we are told, standing up for “our ideas” means making some absurd concession to antagonistic forces, in hopes our good intentions and intellectual bio-diversity will green the souls and stay the hands of our enemies (Mayor Bloomberg, call your office).

Political correctness is no match for radical Islam. The latter has shown its commitment, time and again in locations around the world, to winning this conflict. The former, meanwhile, is a tiresome modern reflex, whereby poseurs take a quick assessment of common sense, then put all their energy behind the contrary view. This tic can manifest itself in straightforward fashion – as in, when people aver it is offensive to erect a nativity display at Christmastime – or abstractly – such as, you demonstrate how a cut in capital gains tax rates spurs the economy, then someone calls you a racist.

In either case, this is no way to win a war.

That brings us back to freedom. But the question remains: Just what would the victory of “freedom” mean to us? Would we breathe a little easier? Would the Kabuki dance of airport security be curtailed? Most important, would the brave members of our armed forces be spared from injury and death on foreign soil?

Intelligent and experienced people have struggled to define victory in Iraq, where the US combat mission has just ended, and Afghanistan, where human rights abuses abound and military casualties continue – to say nothing of the almost-nuclear, terror-sponsoring Iran. What does “freedom” look like for Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, and others?

There will be no top-hats and ceremonies when this war ends. And so I put the question to you, gentle readers – what does victory in the war on terror look like?

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.