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Vulnerable, Fallible, Fragile

September 12, 2010

At the base of the Christchurch Firefighters' Reserve sculpture, which is crafted of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center towers, native Maori placed the silhouette of a koru or fern representing hope, rebirth and new life.

Princeton scholar and author Robert Wuthnow‘s recent book Be Very Afraid traces the cultural origins of our nation’s responses to nuclear weapons, biological threats (both natural and manmade), terrorism and climate change. In the book’s final chapter, he summarizes three frameworks for reconciling our relationship to these threats, their effects and the uncertainty we feel about the future as a result of their pervasive influence over us as a people and human beings as a species. The more I reflected on our nation’s response to 9/11, the more I was drawn to Wuthnow’s distinctions.

What makes our modern awareness of these threats unique and so distinct from the past is the influence of science both on their emergence and our understanding of how to deal with them. Phenomena our ancestors would have described as acts of God can no longer be dismissed so easily; we have become the authors of our own destiny. Even the most devout among us sees a distinctly human hand at work in the perils we face.

More importantly, however, we accept some responsibility for these phenomena and how we deal with them, if only to assume we must carry on on in whatever way we can manage to fulfill those responsibilities that make up so much of our daily lives. This, we have come to realize, is an artifact of our humanity: Action in spite of awareness of our own insignificance.

Nine years ago, as the country woke to the first new day after the horror of the worst attacks against Americans on our native soil, we were faced with choices, that although not new to us, certainly awakened in us new and different understandings of our relationship to evil and one another. We felt closer to one another as Americans and more dependent on the goodwill of others. But soon enough, our sense of loss and fear became cause for anger.

For many, the attacks presented new evidence of our vulnerability. The United States was no longer beyond the reach of its adversaries. What we once saw as strengths — our geography, technology and democracy — no longer shielded us from those who meant to do us harm. No one, it seemed, could consider themselves entirely safe anymore.

Others saw in the attacks or in the way we responded to them, evidence of our fallibility as a people. We became a target not because others hated our freedoms, but because we failed to adequately avail ourselves of the opportunities they presented us with. For people of this view, the attacks served more as a question mark than an exclamation point. What, they wondered, should we do to make things right? For many, if not most, the answer was clear. The only appropriate way to answer was to respond from a position of strength. We must prove, they proffered, that we are not as weak and feeble as the attacks made us seem. This, however, produced widely varied responses that have only deepened the ideological divides among us.

In the end, at least for me, the attacks proved something more profound. They demonstrated yet again the fragility of our human condition. They proved not only our fallibility and vulnerability, but also laid bare innate qualities that cause us to think and act in ways that demean us and diminish our humanity. The attacks and our responses to them demonstrated that both our adversaries and ourselves share tendencies to stereotype, oversimplify, and place our reasoning faculties in service of our emotions.

These tendencies and the conditions they reveal in us are just cause not for retribution but repentance. Our fragility should make us more aware of our dependence on compassion and the need to greet one another and the challenges we share with empathy.

The coincidence that this 9/11 anniversary falls as it does immediately after the Muslim holy day of Eid-al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan and between the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should have served to underscore the need for us to look back on these events with a sense of awe and repentance. Our retrospective sense of wonder should not arise from the fact that these events occurred in the first place. It is neither the fallibility of our imaginations nor lapses in our preparedness that should attract our attention. Rather, the fact we have neither succumbed to the assault nor prevailed over our adversaries should give us pause.

It is my most fervent hope that in the time before the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that we will come to recognize that our best hope of achieving the sense of order, stability and consistency we crave in world affairs will come from engaging others with empathy. It may be too much to ask Americans to love their enemies. The pain remains too raw, too great and too real for many. But we can defeat our adversaries by avoiding the temptations to see the worst in others, to seek simple answers to complex problems and to rely more on organizations, institutions and nations than individuals to make the world a better place for us all.

To the extent that the future is in our hands, we all share a responsibility to guide the work of our hands with our heads and hearts to produce a just and peaceful world.

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