A Nobel Peace laureate looks back on 9/11, and what it taught us.
Ten years ago to the day I was in a taxi with my wife, Marion, near Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. Music was playing on the radio when it abruptly stopped. The announcer’s voice took some time to explain that a major plane crash had just happened downtown. Because of thick traffic, we were still in the car when the second plane crashed into the other building.
We looked back and, through the window, saw flames engulfing the first tower.
Then, the second. Within the hour it was possible for us to see the horror in its entirety on TV: families’ tears and officials’ concern for survivors.
This is how my wife and I learned of the gravity of the immense and monstrous nightmare that shook us all, everywhere. It affected us personally, too: someone dear to us was working on Wall Street.
Later, all of America and the world were witness to the tragic event that would forever mar the century that had just been born.
First, I remember, that day separated humanity into two categories: the terrorists and their sympathizers on the one hand, and their enemies on the other. That the suicide killers were Muslim created an atmosphere hostile to Islam — wrongly: it is always unfair to generalize. What bothered us was that they had lived and studied for some time in the United States; in other words, among us. It was right to ask ourselves: had they learned nothing on our soil, from their neighbors and acquaintances, about morality and civilization?
Second, on an individual and human level, our city revealed that it had a heart. Its generosity went beyond social, religious, political and other borders. Hundreds, thousands waited in line at Red Cross stations to give blood. Even though, through all means possible, we were informed that there was no longer even a need.
Even far from Ground Zero, passersby stopped strangers, offering them something to drink. Or to greet them. Or just to hug them.
Indeed, that day, New York outdid itself with its human and fraternal kindness. This also is part of what we should remember today. Yes, we must recall that it comes down to showing the assassins that they will never succeed in making us fearful; paradoxically, they succeeded in making us better.
Third, during the moments when the two skyscrapers burned, people could be seen jumping from the fiery windows. Like long ago…
Yes, long ago, elsewhere, in another time and place. In 1943, Warsaw. Strange, but I heard no one point out this aspect of the tragedy linking the heroic Jewish rebels’ despair in the ghetto to the unfortunate workers in our Twin Towers.
Was it because the two events are, in an almost eschatological sense, essentially different? And also because, for many years now, I plead again and again that one must never compare anything to what is — so poorly — called the Holocaust? But beware: I do not believe that our task today is to compare; it is rather to show yet again that in the history of humankind, everything is connected.
Fourth, when speaking of 9/11, in many circles people forget to mention that the perpetrators were actually suicide-killers. Which they were. Which means that today the entire world is threatened by this category of murderers.
In the beginning, they operated mainly against Jews in Israel. Now they do so in many other countries, from France and England to Afghanistan.
If on Sept. 11 the suicide-killers were adult males, today they can be found among women and children.
Several years ago, together with Norway’s Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, I organized a summit conference titled, “Fighting Terrorism for Humanity.” Twenty countries participated. No speaker came up with realistic ideas on how to combat this new avatar of terror. My proposal, to charge anyone connected with suicide murder as guilty of a “crime against humanity,” was accepted by everyone — except that no one explained how to go about it.
All the empasis was placed on security. In this way too, society has changed: never before have so many men and women been involved in so many aspects of providing security for so many individuals and groups everywhere.
The fact that this commemorative anniversary takes place today, with such devotion and nobility — would it have happened if, for more than a generation, survivors hadn’t dedicated their passion and their life to give the memory of this event all that it deserves?
Translated from the French by Jamie Moore.
Editor’s Note: On 9/11, Elie Wiesel penned a brief essay for The Jewish Week on the unfolding tragedy, linking terror attacks against Israel to the one that shocked the U.S. that day.
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