Ten Things I Want My Children To Learn From 9/11

The greatest fear I felt on September 11, 2001 was not as a citizen, but as a new father. My fears about that day — and about its legacy — remain centered on my children.

I rose very early that day to meet my father in the hospital. He was scheduled for an early surgery at Huntington Memorial in Pasadena — a triple bypass, following six years of messing around with angioplasties. I met him in the prep room before 6, and talked to him for a while, reminiscing out our recent trip to Korea to pick up Evan and joking about the condom catheter they'd made him use. I don't know if he was afraid; I was, but we didn't discuss it. Eventually the nurses waved me away as they started to ready him for surgery. I walked out of the prep area towards the family waiting room. As I did so, I noticed two nurses, a receptionist, and a doctor talking in an agitated fashion about something.

I walked into the family waiting room at about 6:20 a.m. Pacific time, and encountered two other families staring uncomprehendingly at a television depicting something out of a bad Bruckheimer movie. I spent the day in that sunny, cheerfully painted room, waiting with other people already numb with anxiety over the operations their loved ones were undergoing a few doors away, watching the terror as it unfolded. The flow of new people ebbed as Huntington canceled non-emergency surgeries to accommodate victims of any local disaster. Strangers all, we sat together, comforted each other, got each other coffee, celebrated when news of a loved one's successful surgery arrived, and used our cell phones to contact family members in surreal conversations bouncing between immediate medical peril and incomprehensible existential peril. The volunteer receptionist, a frail elderly lady with hair a shade of blue normally associated with county fair cotton candy, wept inconsolably until we found a supervisor and had her ushered carefully home.

I remember the inhuman, robotic tone the anchor used to note that the second tower had collapsed. I remember the desperate fear about how many more planes turned angry missiles might still be in the air. I remember the way we all had our eyes locked on the screen until the reception phone would ring to bring an update about a patient's condition, at which point we would all stare at the phone the way a bird looks at a snake. I remember calling my wife, telling her to turn on the TV, and thanking God that my son was too young to understand or fear what was happening.

My father's surgery was a success. In recovery, before they removed the breathing tube from his throat, he tried to write "NY?" and "DC?" on my hand with his finger to ask what was happening — he heard doctors talking about it. I stayed with him until he went to sleep, and then I went home and held my son and wondered how the Hell I was supposed to raise a child, and what I could tell him.

It's been ten years now, and I'm still thinking about what to tell him, and what to tell his sisters. As discussion of 9/11 has reached a fever pitch with this anniversary, I've thought about it a lot more. I've thought about it in the context of what lessons I think I've learned, and what lessons I'd like them to learn, from the 9/11 atrocities and our nation's reaction to them.

These are the ten things I think I'd tell them to take away from the last ten years.

1. Ordinary People Are Capable Of Extraordinary Things. On 9/11, hundreds of police and firefighters died struggling to save lives — to do their jobs under unfathomable circumstances. Many of them charged into those towers knowing the risk. Some of them stayed in the towers in defiance of orders to withdraw because they would not abandon the injured. After the collapse, more police and firefighters rushed into a dark, smoking Hell in a desperate bid to find survivors. Hundreds of miles away, on Flight 93, civilians rushed bare-handed to assault a squad of trained terrorists aboard a hurtling jet.

This was not a mystical and improbable gathering of superheroes. It was a gathering of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances who did all that they could do despite their fears. They were like us: some "good", some "bad", some humble, some proud, some trustworthy, some not. Faced with unprecedented circumstances, they did not say "I can't do this, I'm just a regular person, not Superman." They stepped up. They died, but they died struggling to save others — and in some cases undoubtedly succeeded.

Since that day, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have strapped a ton of shit to their backs and shouldered weapons and walked across perilous unfamiliar landscapes in Afghanistan and Iraq. They've done so under miserable conditions, in constant peril from enemies indistinguishable from civilians and from bombs that look like piles of rubble. Thousands have died. Thousands more have left maimed, concussed, tormented. And yet still they come. Still they do their jobs.

It's nearly mandatory to call the cops and the firefighters, the citizens of Flight 93, and the men and women on the tip of the spear heroes. They are, but not in the sense that they are a people apart from us, people who were able to meet incredible challenges because they started with some sort of extraordinary abilities. They are heroes because they are ordinary Americans who did their duty under fire. Especially in an age of excuses, that is extraordinary.

I'd have my children remember that as they face challenges and opportunities and duties. If my children carries some responsibility, some burden, and want to lay it down because they are frightened, I'd want them to ask themselves — am I more frightened than those people were? They stood up. They made a difference. So can you.

2. Evil Exists. Sorry, kids. This one might be shorthand, but it's true. Evil exists — not just in The Other, but among us. Evil wears guises — ignorance and fear and pride and ambition and hatred — but it's the same under all of those. Being good — being innocent — being right — none of that will make you safe. You can do all you can to live a reflective an principled life, and that won't stop someone from hurting you for ideology or profit or amusement. Evil will not stop existing just because all of the well-meaning people in the world hope and believe that it will. Plan accordingly.

3. Good Exists. This is the one that lets you press on despite #2, above. Compassion, decency, honesty, generosity, selflessness all exist amongst us. I believe that there is nothing evil in us that cannot be overcome by what is good in us. Act accordingly.

4. It's Best To Define Yourself By Your Reaction To Events, Not By The Events Themselves. Here I borrow a page from my pastor, who preached today on living from the inside out rather than from the outside in. A life lived from the outside in is a life defined by what has happened to me. A life lived from the inside out is a life defined by how I conducted myself in reaction to what happened to me. We should not define ourselves as the nation that was attacked on 9/11. We should define ourselves as the nation that stood up again, dusted itself off, looked to the injured, honored its dead, and persevered after 9/11. Alas, that's complicated, as we see in number 5.

5. A Thing Is Not the Same As Our Reaction To A Thing. This one is a little metaphysical for the kids, I'm afraid. What I mean is this: the catastrophic attacks of 9/11 are what they are, a series of physical events that took place on that day. Our reactions to 9/11 — our fears, our beliefs, our assumptions, our slogans — are something else. Magritte's picture of a pipe was not the pipe itself; Warhol's depiction of Campbell's soup cans were not real soup, and what we decide to think and feel and do about 9/11 is not the same as what happened on 9/11. So when someone tells us "we must do this, because of what happened on 9/11," they are fundamentally misleading us. What they mean is "we must do this, because of my interpretation of the significance of 9/11." This leads us to #6:

6. Beware of How People Use Great And Terrible Things And Events. The lesson I remember best from my religious instruction as a youth in the Catholic church came from a nun who was explaining the ten commandments. She asked me to explain the prohibition of taking the Lord's name in vain; I said it meant I should not curse using God's name. She corrected me — ultimately the commandment means we should not invoke God's name for our own power or glory or purposes rather than His own, she said.

9/11 — like every great and terrible thing and event that has ever come before it — is invoked to demand and justify a wide array of ends and prove a confusing jumble of conclusions. Many of those ends and conclusions were sought by their advocates well before 9/11. It has ever been so. People will seek power, seek prominence, seek money, seek their religious and ideological goals by invoking events — by trying, as I suggested in #4 above, to blur the line between the thing and our reaction to the thing. This has been a constant theme on this blog: the government has sought more and more power over us, and more and more limitations on our rights, by invoking 9/11, only to use those new powers to fight old fights unrelated to terrorism and to suppress things they didn't like before 9/11. The PATRIOT ACT was an incoherent jumble of law enforcement wet dreams and wish lists, components of which had been floating about for decades. But though the government's efforts to use 9/11 has carried the most weight, the invocations have not come only from the government — they've come from everywhere, left and right, seeking to use the tragedy to prove preconceptions about America and its foreign policy. Which brings us to our next topic:

7. Fear, Anger, and Apathy Are Perilous. If you make a decision out of fear or anger, or shrug and accept someone else's decision out of apathy, it's only sheer dumb luck if that decision is a good one. If cops and firefighters charged into the towers to their death despite their fear, if soldiers dodge snipers and IEDs despite their fear, if the passengers of Flight 93 took on terrorists unarmed despite their fear, then dammit, the least we can do is use the brains God gave us and think things through even when we're angry and afraid. And for Heaven's sake, the least we can do is care. We're told to remain vigilant in the face of terrorism. It would be damn foolish not to realize that fear, rage, and grief make us vulnerable to bad decisions, and therefore to exercise skepticism and caution in making decision and concessions, and to resist siren calls to act from our fear and rage.

8. Understanding Is Not The Same As Justifying. "I learned everything I need to know about Muslims on 9/11," people say. What rank cretinism. Some extremists — how many is in dispute — want to kill us. It's self-indulgence of the worst sort, a fit of stylized bravado, to refuse to inquire why. Wanting to know an adversary's reasons for acting is not the same as agreeing that those reasons amount to justification. Learning about enemies — and learning about the cultures, religions, and peoples from which they are drawn — helps us protect ourselves, and helps to separate friend from foe. Ideologues among us suggest that all Muslims are suspect. I don't believe that at all, but even if I did, it would be catastrophically foolish to decide as some point of misguided honor not to learn all we can about them. If, as I suspect, the extremists who want to kill us a relatively small percentage of the world's Muslims, then learning all we can about them helps us separate potential friends from implacable foes. It's ridiculously insecure to see the quest for understanding as a sign of weakness or concession. After all, scientists don't study Ebola Zaire because they like it.

9. People Are Not Abstractions. Each person who died on 9/11 represented an entire world ending. Each American soldier killed in the last ten years means the same. Each enemy — and each civilian — killed in those wars was a person with a life and friends and family and a viewpoint, just like you. They might not appreciate you using them as a talking point. The soldier who believed in what he was doing might not appreciate you using his death to argue for a withdrawal from the Middle East. The citizen who died in the towers might not appreciate you invoking her to justify going to war. The people who may die because of our actions — because we fail to protect ourselves, or because we go to war — will be entire worlds unto themselves as well. We ought to remember that at every step of this discussion, and remember to separate the reality of those people from the use we want to make of them.

10. There is Nothing New Under the Sun. Our nation has endured great horrors before, and endured them. Across the globe other peoples have endured worse, and have survived. Some are still enduring worse. Though this was the gravest terrorist attack on us in our short history, it was not the worst thing we've ever faced. It's wrong to think that it was. It's wrong because it encourages us to buy what people are selling — that we must change America because we've never faced something this bad before. In fact, the dedication and courage and decency and sensibility that got our forebears through privations and wars and every sort of national trauma will serve us perfectly well, thank you. 9/11 was terrible, but proclaiming that it was the worst thing that ever happened to anybody is deluded and lacks proportion. It was terrible. Honor our dead, bind up our wounded, examine and remedy our weaknesses, and study and subdue our foes, all using the blessings long since given to us — and then move on.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    Ken, this is one of best pieces anywhere, on any topic, period. Thank you. One quick nitpicky note: I don't necessarily like the ebola comparison as you've used it. You seem to have decided that studying Islam and Muslims may, at least for some people, equate to studying a subsection of terrorists. It doesn't work that way. For example, no one would rationally study atheists to understand the Unabomber, or Scandinavians to understand Anders Behring Breivik, or Judaism to understand Madoff. If the previous examples don't make sense, neither does your comparison. (Another way to explain this fallacy is that no one would study an entire group to understand 0.1% of its adherents.) I don't know the best way to capture, identify, or understand terrorists, but the idea that studying an entire religion will somehow help us understand 9/11 or terrorism won't help. It'll just help associate terrorism with that religion, which is unjust to the 99.9999% of the group.

    In reality, Americans in general don't understand much about the rest of the world, period. Part of this is because most Americans don't travel outside of North America and Europe. Part of this has to do with our shock-and-awe soundbite media. But one thing is for sure–creating misguided conceptions and superficial associations will stymie substantive understanding of important concepts. Just my two cents.

  2. says

    I see your perspective on that line, Matt, but it was addressed to the mindset of people who see Muslims as by definition or nature probable enemies. Regrettably that's not an unusual sentiment.

    It would be my hope that learning more about Islam would allow people to distinguish between the vast majority of its adherents, on the one hand, and people who use it as a justification for evil, on the other.

  3. says

    Ken, no amount of studying will help people who believe there is a natural East/West clash of civilizations or that Islam is in general anti-American or violent. We look for what we want to see. For example, I can easily make out Christianity to be anti-woman, just as someone can easily do the same thing with Islam.

    In general, people are afraid of the unknown, and there just aren't enough Muslims in America to give people a face-to-face and personal experience with Islam. A Californian or New Yorker might see a few Pakistanis or women with headscarves on a weekly basis, but that won't help him or her understand that India has 100+ million Muslims, or that Islam is practiced differently in Indonesia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Even knowing these facts won't help humanize Muslims and take them out of the "other" category for most Americans.

    It will take time for Muslims to disassociate themselves with 9/11, but studying Islam won't help the process. MLK knew what he was talking about when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." He understood that some things just take time. Rational and articulate people like you help keep the arc bent in the right direction. Thank you.

  4. C. S. P. Schofield says

    The first, startling lesson that I took away from 9/11 was the thought "I've been expecting this for twenty years". I read history. I follow the news. I knew that there was a segment of Muslim society that held us in contempt because of decades of "If we can just sit down with them and talk, I'm sure we can work it out without violence" foreign policy. I knew that, further, decades of criticizing regimes that tried to control their radical thugs, while making excuses for those that didn't, had had the consequence of undermining all attempts by Islamic States to remain civilized.

    The lesson of 9/11 is not simply that there is Evil, but that there are Barbarians, and that one should not treat Barbarians as if they were civilized people. Nasty as it is to say, civilized people will work with you to avoid war, because they have a lively idea of how nasty life can get when you fight a war and lose. Barbarians have to be reminded of this more often. Barbarians prefer war to trade, because they conceive of both as having winners and losers, and they have exaggerated ideas of their capacity for war. Conducting civilized diplomacy with Barbarians excites them to feelings of contempt.

    On 9/11 we had spent decades trying to be Mr. International Nice Guy. The Barbarians of the world had forgotten how truly unpleasant life can get when you make America mad. Sadly, the blithering of the established Media has badly blunted the lessons that Iraq and Afghanistan would otherwise represent.

    I live in fear of the day that the Barbarians launch a really successful terror attack on us (9/11 was, in concrete terms, a moderate failure. Better timing on the same targets could easily have killed ten times the number of dead). When that happens, we really WILL lose our temper, and Hell will go out for a walk with the sleeves rolled up. When the dust clears we will have changed as a nation, and not for the better.

    And the Arabian Peninsula may well be one large sheet of radioactive glass.

  5. says

    Thank you for a wonderful piece, Ken. But I cannot agree with #10 — the philosophy of respect for the individual and the fundamental equality of people that began in the time of John Locke is/was a new goodness for all mankind. Already it has ended institutional slavery and molded a limited government in the U.S. It is a flower still unfolding.

  6. says

    Ken, this was absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for taking the time, thought, and emotion necessary to write it.

    I do completely respect your copyright and would like permission to (properly attributed, of course) post your words from number 9 above to a discussion board for my philosophy class. It's a restricted use board (only for members of that particular class). We're discussing the Egocentric Principle and this is a perfect description of how that works. I would, also, provide a link to the entire article. More people need to see this.

  7. Christina says

    Absolutely wonderful. I especially like the progression through the items, because I too agree that #10 is the right conclusion of any series of thoughts on the topic. One must think and act, not because 9/11 was the "worst" attack on the "best" country in the world, but because people were killed and injured by the actions of others, and this is a wrong we must universally seek to eliminate from the world.

    Good and evil exist – as Solzhenitsyn said, in the heart of every person. The most tragic story I have read on this tenth anniversary was the NYTimes article about a Polish immigrant who took the wrong train to a job interview on the evening of 9/11 and was murdered in a gang/drug incident. Even on a day when extraordinary good was responding to extraordinary evil, the ordinary work of the human condition proceeded apace. The extraordinary actions have their roots in the ordinary ones, and we must all work daily to nourish the good and weaken the evil which resides in our own hearts.

  8. -pwl says

    On point #9: I can't remember how long ago it was that my now 15yo son and I were listening to a news report about the war in Afghanistan. It was after a particularly grizzly period when people were dying left and right. On this day the report was of (only) 10 people being killed. He thought 10 was a comparatively small number and I had to agree–comparatively was the key phrase. So I asked him what he would have said if it was only three people. He said that was barely any. Then I said, what if the three people were me, his mother and his sister.

    It was not something that I had been thinking about. The sentiment came as a bit of a shock to me as soon as I said it. The look on his face stirs me to this day.

    I feel bad for making him feel bad that day, but we both were changed for the better– right there in the kitchen.

    People are connected. Every death is a pity.

  9. Alberto Salceda says

    I want to print this, frame it, and read it to my children every day. It's not only a deeply insightful reflection on a great tragedy, but it contains great lessons in character and integrity; especially (but not limited to) 4, 5, and 6.
    Thank you.

  10. Contracts says

    Not only the best remembrance that I've seen this weekend, but also one of the best blog posts that I've seen in a long time.

  11. Will says

    This is a great article, I wish more people would read it. I have a slight quibble with #10. Even if 9/11 were the worst thing to ever happen to the US, that does not mean we need to change who we are fundamentally. I don't think you were implying that it would, I just thought that maybe it should be mentioned. We got to where we are today by being who we are, we can over this and any other tragedy without becoming someone else.-


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