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Reflections on 9/11 after returning from Mass

Posted on 2010.09.12 at 16:37
Current Mood: worriedworried

The “anniversary” of the September 11th attacks came again.  I recalled all that happened from my point of view.  The surreal hours in the classroom as the events unfolded, my decision to fully commit to Scouts, as my age and other factors prevented me from taking a more active role in defending the nation, and an essay written by the now departed Professor Gould.  It made a fair impression on me. I even used it as the reading for a Scout’s Own service.

 Apple Brown Betty

By Stephen Jay Gould

The patterns of human history mix decency and depravity in equal measure.  We often assume, therefore, that such a fine balance of results must emerge from societies made of decent and depraved people in equal numbers.  But we need to expose and celebrate the [falseness] of this conclusion so that… we may reaffirm an essential truth too easily forgotten, and regain some crucial comfort too readily foregone.  Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one.  The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people.  Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant.  Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by ten thousand acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the “ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.

Thus, we face an imperative duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior.   I have stood at Ground Zero, stunned by the twisted ruins of the largest human structure ever destroyed in a catastrophic moment…   And I have contemplated a single day of carnage that our nation has not suffered since battles that still evoke passions and tears, nearly 150 years later:  Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor.  The scene is insufferably sad, but not at all depressing…

[I]n human terms, Ground Zero is the focal point for a vast web of bustling goodness, channeling uncountable deeds of kindness from an entire planet -- the acts that must be recorded to reaffirm the overwhelming weight of human decency.  The rubble of Ground Zero stands mute, while a beehive of human activity churns within, and radiates outward, as everyone makes a selfless contribution, big or tiny according to means and skills, but each of equal worth.  My wife and stepdaughter established a depot to collect and ferry needed items in short supply, including respirators and shoe inserts, to the workers at Ground Zero.  Word spreads like a fire of goodness, and people stream in, bringing gifts from a pocketful of batteries to a ten thousand dollar purchase of hard hats, made on the spot at a local supply house and delivered right to us.


I will cite but one tiny story, among so many, to begin the count that will overwhelm the power of any terrorist’s act.  And by such tales, multiplied many millionfold, let these few depraved people finally understand why their vision of inspired fear cannot prevail over ordinary decency.  As we left a local restaurant to make a delivery to Ground Zero late one evening, the cook gave us a shopping bag and said:  “Here’s a dozen apple brown bettys, our best dessert, still warm.  Please give them to the rescue workers.”  How lovely, I thought, but how meaningless, except as an act of solidarity, connecting the cook to the cleanup.  Still, we promised that we would make the distribution, and we put the bag of 12 apple brown bettys atop several thousand respirators and shoe pads. 

Twelve apple brown bettys into the breach.  Twelve apple brown bettys for thousands of workers.  And then I learned something important that I should never have forgotten -- and the joke turned on me.  Those twelve apple brown betty’s went like literal hotcakes.  These trivial symbols in my initial judgment turned into little drops of gold within a rainstorm of similar offerings for the stomach and soul, from children’s postcards to cheers by the roadside.  We gave the last one to a firefighter, an older man in a young crowd, sitting alone in utter exhaustion as he inserted one of our shoe pads.  And he said, with a twinkle and a smile restored to his face: “Thank you.  This is the most lovely thing I’ve seen in four days -- and still warm!

I reflected in my homily that the acts of selfless bravery and heroism, as well as the many acts of support and pulling together all over the nation show how the worst will bring out the best in us.  In the end, I stated, as long as there are those who are willing and able to be helpful in even the most seemingly insignificant ways in the darkest of hours, evil can never ultimately win.

Sadly, it appears as if I may have been wrong.Some of the nicest people I have known seem to be taking the side of an ugly nastiness that is spreading.  Ideals that our country is supposed to stand for and the sacrifices made to defend them seem to count for naught among more and more people.  Some of these same people have been the most vociferous about their fear of losing the freedoms that these ideals are based upon.  I really fear that if we as a nation do not wake up, remember who we are, and pull together as we did on that terrible day and the weeks that followed- not caring who the next person was or what they believed in other than that they are a fellow human beings and that we believe in each other- I really do fear that the terrorist will have succeeded.

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