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Why Altruism And Love Should Define Our Heroes


Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2001

Some have referred to the mass murderers who destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon as "cowards." This label has long been popular in discussions of atrocities and harms committed against the defenseless. Yet I find the label both perplexing and disturbing, particularly now.

A group of fanatics filled with hatred slaughter at least six thousand innocent people, and the worst insult we can come up with is to call them "cowards"? It is as though accusing a person of cruelty, viciousness, and pure evil were no match for calling him a "wuss." Adolescent masculinity saturates the air.

I agree with those who say that this was an act of war on the nation. How best to respond is, of course, another question, and one on which I pretend no expertise. But how we view the souls of the men who perpetrated this carnage is important, however we choose to retaliate. The rhetoric we use and the attitudes we take will determine the sorts of people we will become in a future that is uncertain.

Courage without Conscience

Whatever else they were, the terrorists who killed our loved ones, and who simultaneously shattered our nation's sense of safety, had courage, at least as the word is conventionally used. They did not flinch in the face of certain pain and death, despite the survival instinct that one would expect from any living creature.

It was precisely their fearlessness that enabled them to inflict pain and death on innocent others with such devastating success. They believed that the deity they worshipped wanted us dead and that we were the enemy, and they methodically and ruthlessly carried out what they viewed as the divine will.

They were the epitome of a masculinity that embraces violent force against the imagined enemy, no matter what the cost. It may be difficult for us to face it, but these men were afraid of nothing and thus not "cowards" at all.

Heroism in the Face of Fear

But we are afraid, and that fear is not a matter for shame, for it shows that though "they" may have had nothing to lose — their lives meaning as little to them as those of their intended victims — we have and had plenty to lose.

The heroes amongst us are the men and women who rushed into burning buildings to save lives; who work around the clock to try to find survivors in the rubble; who give food, materials, comfort, and support to those who are grieving and to those who are traumatized.

Our heroes have rummaged through human remains and have begun efforts to put the city and the nation it came to symbolize back together. Our heroes have inspired us with their lives, their warmth, their care, and their generosity, at great sacrifice to themselves, including, in many cases, the loss of their own precious lives.

Where the evil men exercised raw power and force, the good men and women have responded by exercising unconditional love, by reaching out to strangers with kindness and charity. Ultimately, the battle in which we are engaged is between violence and hate, on the one hand, and love and empathy, on the other. It is a battle that we cannot afford to lose.

Bravery in the Service of Love

Notwithstanding the importance of love, violent force of some kind will almost certainly emerge as a necessary part of preserving the values that were under attack on that day of terror. Our country will call upon soldiers and civilians alike to participate in protecting all that we hold dear. More of us will lose our lives and the lives of those whom we love, and we will need to be brave as we face the unspeakable prospect of these excruciating losses.

Such bravery will be praiseworthy, but it will be so only because it is a means to an end in which people can live in peace. Courage without empathy is the face of terror, the countenance of the vicious bully whose emotional development was arrested in early adolescence. The bully is evil, and deserves no mercy, but he is no coward.

The images of children celebrating thousands of miles away, dancing on the graves of those we cherished, rejoicing at the suffering of our heroes, are grotesque and may be impossible for us to forget. Some American parents said that it was easier to explain the massacre to their little ones than it was to explain the joy and delight on the faces of people as young as themselves.

Yet these singing children, the ones who applauded the terrorists, will not grow up to become cowards. If the lessons they are taught do not change dramatically, they will grow up thinking of the murderers as righteous martyrs and as role models to be emulated.

The rage we feel is natural and justified. Harsh, merciless retribution is warranted. But in describing the suicide mission that took away so much that was innocent and right and beautiful about our country, we must call it heartless — not cowardly.

If cowards inhabited our world instead of courageous murderers, September 11th would not have become a day of pain and mourning. Love, rather than power, must underlie our search for meaning in this tragedy.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark.

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