When the Twin Towers toppled on September 11, 2001, the immediate shock wave destroyed adjacent buildings, but surely did not stop there. Those tremors spread throughout New York, traveled across the United States and were felt everywhere in the world, creating very mixed feelings – fear and terror, shock and incredulity and, in some places, also joy and revenge.
This earthquake phenomenon occurred for two reasons: the event’s magnitude and its closeness. The human toll was too large to be ignored, but still within human comprehension. Huge numbers of casualties seem to have less emotional impact: half a million dead from hunger; a million Tutsis killed; six million Jews murdered – these become abstractions. Thousands are comprehensible and therefore more emotionally meaningful.
The second key element of the attack was its closeness, both geographic and emotional. It happened in the midst of a living city, in many ways at the center of the world. Tens of thousands watched the event itself; billions more saw it simultaneously on television. When the rivers of China flood, the mayhem that follows is both far away and remote from our own experience. When skyscrapers collapse, many of us can relate this calamity to our own lives.
September 11th created twin emotional responses within us, both deeply felt. The first is fear – not the fear of immediate danger, but of profound dread, the dread of death itself. We know about death from early childhood, but mostly just as a word. We encounter death often during our lives. Even so, we avoid thinking about it when we can and for good reason: if death were too much on our minds, we would be paralyzed by it. When death touches someone near us, we are too preoccupied with sorrow, loss and memory to think much about its meaning. And when death happens to others, we again find a way to keep our distance. “The land of the dead” has many citizens, all kinds of people, but not us.
But the toll at the World Trade Center was different, because it was indiscriminate. Who were the dead? People just like us, rich and poor, mothers and fathers, Americans and foreigners. In one word – us. And because we could relate so closely, 9/11 evoked a very deep, basic fear – the encounter with death itself.
The other emotional response from September 11th is the horror that it was man-made. It revealed to America, and to the entire civilized world, the reality of evil. This was not evil as an abstraction. This was not evil as an unnatural aberration of a sick individual. Here, evil was revealed as it is – a premeditated power, rational in its very craziness. So much time has been spent in our kindergartens teaching us that evil is otherwise. We were schooled to believe that wicked witches were just fantasy or, at least, long extinct; that the wolves had all been safely tucked away in zoos. Now we discover that evil is again prowling our cities and streets – organized, clever …and as vicious as ever. People flock to horror films, based on the knowledge that all is mere fiction. But this evil is not fiction; now we are forced to confront evil as a reality, as a basic fact of life.
Analyzing the past is like making a medical diagnosis: it may be scientifically correct, but it does not ease the pain. If we are to learn from this terrible experience, we should begin by recognizing the great need to re-humanize contemporary society. The megalopolis civilization is, in its very nature, built on lonely strangers, solitary individuals and insular nuclear families. Thus, we are always living with “others.” They may be acquaintances or even relatives, but they are still basically strangers. We need to see these others as people to whom we must reach out, in whom we must be interested. We can renew the very old habit of asking, really: Who are you, stranger? What do you care about? What do you need?
This is by no means a call for charity; it may apply equally to the next-door neighbor in an upscale neighborhood. A rich man may have many employees who work for him, a number of admirers who wish to be like him, but how many friends does he have? Humanization does not only mean benevolence; it means taking an interest in the world, knowing the world – and being ready to act for the sake of others.
International terrorism is the result of the alienation that does not allow the terrorist to see himself in others. For him, it does not matter what happens to “others” – to “others” living in remote places, to “others” of whom he rarely thinks.
In our own sphere, the rediscovery of our shared responsibility, national and international, is a part of our essence as “children of Adam.” And if the collapse of the towers shattered some of the urbanized remoteness – perhaps from those ruins we will have salvaged something worthwhile.