Decades more must pass before the human heart and mind can grasp the full meaning of September 11, 2001. Those of us close enough to have issued warnings that were ignored have our own memories and burdens.
I am clear on one thing, however. Save for our Civil War, there is no other event in American history where the meaning of duty was revealed more vividly. Responding to the increasingly urgent emergency calls, hundreds of New York City firemen and policemen rushed to the scene. Three hundred and forty three firemen and 60 policemen—at least 418 first responders–did not come out alive.
Why did they do it? What causes men and women to act bravely and without concern for personal safety? This is one of the deepest mysteries of the human condition. Those who escaped this man-made holocaust said, when asked why they did it, it was my job. It was my duty.
Duty in this case goes well beyond fulfilling a contract or doing what one is paid to do. It involves willingness to sacrifice one’s life for others. Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for another.
A woman who had always been put off by the excessive display of the American flag stood on Seventh Avenue in Midtown that day. As a flatbed truck loaded with hard-hat construction workers raced southward with flags flying, she said she wept.
Duty in the interest of saving lives is near the essence of what makes us human and what adds a spiritual dimension to our character. Most of us wonder if, when faced with personal danger to help another, we would have the courage to act. There is not one report of a fireman or policeman who suddenly found something else to do when the alarms went off and calls to action went out. There were fellow Americans, fellow human beings, in those buildings. This is my job. This is my duty.
Who can ever forget the hollow-eyed shock on the grim and grimy faces of the surviving public safety workers coming out of those collapsing buildings. I shared only one thing with them: the sense that I did not do enough. And it haunts me to my grave that I should have pounded on the doors of editorial writers and presidents demanding that they take the warnings of terrorist attacks seriously.
I cannot say, then, that I did my duty. Unlike those courageous firemen and policemen, I should have done more.
Duty is near the core of the values that matter. To do one’s duty is to achieve integrity and integrity is near the center of nobility.
It is my hope that Americans alive on September 11, 2001, will never forget the firemen and the policemen, both those who gave their lives and those who survived. They are lessons in duty and integrity and nobility. They are symbols of that to which we all may aspire.
“Some things” such as duty, “are universal, catholic, and undying. They do not age or pass out of fashion, for they symbolize eternal things. They are the guardians of the freedom of the human spirit, the proof of what our mortal frailty can achieve.” (Montrose, John Buchan)