I almost forgot that today was the 23rd. Weeks ago, when I was digging up columns from 9/11/01 and the days after, I also hunted for this one, which ran 9/23/01.
It was unusual, because I was trying — rather indirectly, as I look back — to express something about the way I had reacted to the attacks earlier in the month, on a personal level.
I knew there was a lot of emotion in our country — shock, grief, anger, fear. And I realized that I wasn’t feeling those things as sharply as a lot of other people seemed to be. Part of that is my personality, and my habit. When something huge happens in the world, rather than internalizing it, I tend to think, Here’s something to be figured out, and commented on. This causes me to be out of sync with a lot of readers sometimes.
But there was more to it than that. Several months before, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had already spread to her liver. Pretty much all the emotions I had to deploy were devoted to that, and to what our whole family was going through. I was interacting with the larger world, but in a muted sort of way. (Maybe “muted” isn’t the right word. I just knew my reaction was different from what it otherwise would have been.)
Within our family, we didn’t know what was going to happen, and we were taking it a day at a time. Now, 10 years later, she’s doing great, except for having a nasty cold in the moment. I can hear her in the other room as I type this, talking to her brother on the phone. Thank God, again and again.
Anyway, here is my attempt at the time to wrestle with both that, and what was happening in the wider world. You’ll see emotion in it — some anger, for instance. But also detachment, even with echoes of fatalism, that you might find it hard to relate to. Here it is:
THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WERE KILLED BY HOPE – THE WRONG KIND
The State – Sunday, September 23, 2001
YOU KNOW WHAT killed those thousands of innocent people in the World Trade Center, and on the planes that plowed into them?
Oh, I know what you’ll say, and you’ll be right: They were killed by murderous, merciless fanatics who hate Americans. But those fanatics couldn’t have succeeded if the crew and passengers aboard those two planes hadn’t been clinging to hope.
There is, of course, no way to know exactly what they were thinking. But it’s reasonable to assume that it’s pretty much what you or I would have thought under similar circumstances:
If I just sit still and do what the hijackers say, maybe they won’t hurt me or anyone else. We outnumber them, and they’re armed only with knives, but there’s no sense in trying to overpower them; somebody could get hurt. They’ll land somewhere, and make their demands, and once we’re on the ground, maybe they’ll let us go.
Their hope was in vain. They had no way of knowing that. And so they, and thousands of others, died – the victims of hope.
I find that thought repugnant. After all, life is nothing without hope. The absence of hope is despair. Isn’t it?
But then I realized there are different kinds of hope. There’s the passive kind, in which you do nothing and hope everything will be all right. Then there’s the active kind, in which you have the courage to do something, even when taking action can be difficult, painful and risky, in the hope that you can make things better – for others if not for yourself. That’s the kind of hope that is more likely to be paired with faith and love. It’s real hope, not the false kind.
The people on those planes that were turned into guided missiles clung to that false hope because they lacked critical information. By contrast, the folks on Flight 93 knew that if they sat still, hoping things would turn out all right, they would die for sure. They knew that because they had heard, via cell phone, what had happened in New York. So they tried to stop the hijackers.
They all died anyway. But not in vain. They prevented the deaths of untold others.
They acted because they had information that helped them understand something soldiers learn in the bitter crucible of combat. The key is to give up the false hope that if you do nothing, you and those around you will be safe. It’s a hard thing to do in combat. It’s a hard thing to do under any circumstances.
When my wife discovered she had breast cancer several months ago, and within three weeks learned it had spread to her liver, we lost that old, familiar false hope – the kind that makes you live your life blithely, thinking you’ve got all the time in the world, as long as you don’t take unnecessary chances.
Now, we know that each day is a gift from God, not some right that we’re entitled to because we’re middle-class Americans. We know that we have to make the most of it, for the sake of others as well as for ourselves. We know that we have to fight. And we have fought. That is, my wife has. She’s the combat soldier here; I’m just support services.
She has held back nothing in this battle. All weapons have been thrown into the fight – chemotherapy, surgery, chemo again. We’re not sure what else will be necessary, but we’re assuming radiation. We have collected invaluable intelligence through a wearying series of tests. And she has terrible scars, most of them hidden.
But the fight has gone well. The cancer is at this point on the run. We rejoice in this, and continue to live our lives – hopefully. But we don’t slide back into the old, deceptive kind of hope. We can’t afford that now. We know there will never be a time when we can be complacent again.
The world has a cancer , and it has struck at the vital organs of this nation. Even when we root out the visible tumors, we’ll know that microscopic bits of it can live on to strike at us again.
A lot of Americans haven’t undergone the necessary change in attitude to fight this cancer. They want guarantees that action won’t lead to further pain. They want to know there’s an exit strategy. They want to cling to false hope, or none at all.
But there are no guarantees. The nation will just have to do the best it can, acting in as decent and humane a manner as possible while doing everything within our power to root out the disease – even when it causes pain and has sickening side effects.
That’s a huge challenge, but we’re going to have to find a way to meet it.
The alternative is to cling to the old, false hope that if we just do nothing, the terrorists won’t hurt us. We now know where that kind of hope leads.
Some of you will notice themes that we would later argue over a great deal on this blog. But I didn’t post this to have another argument.
And I didn’t just post it to reminisce about personal matters. I see it as a sort of artifact, not only of what I was thinking at the time, but to provide a snapshot in time, a time of limbo between the attacks and the beginning of our war in Afghanistan. Before the Patriot Act. Before the anthrax scare.
I was reminded to post this tonight by a documentary my wife was watching about what happened on the actual day of the attacks. We’ve gone over and over that ground in recent weeks. Something I think a lot of us have forgotten is what it was like to be living through the time — the weeks, the months, even the next year or two — after that. The mind naturally amends, in light of facts learned subsequently. I know that when I went looking for this column, I remembered it a little differently from what I actually found when I read it. I found that interesting. I thought you might, too.