Pictures of Unnecessary Events

Author: Gary Hart

Most of us have a picture or two, sometimes more, that we can’t get out of our minds. We say they haunt us. For me, one of those is of New York City firemen, most carrying upwards of a hundred pounds of equipment, trudging up the emergency stairways of the Trade Towers on September 11th, 2001, past dazed, confused, choking tenants trying desperately to make their way to safety. The firemen were deliberately heading into pure danger.

Like combat films of troops heading directly into enemy fire, these pictures make you wonder where that kind of courage comes from. Is it simply training and conditioning? Is it produced by adrenaline alone? Or is it the product of something called duty? If so, where does that sense of duty come from? Where the safety of our fellow human beings are concerned, is duty the result of some deeply felt reflex of care, concern, and empathy? Whatever its source, that duty produces the courage necessary to perform it.

I am among those, undoubtedly a minority, who think those firemen and building tenants did not have to die. If our political leaders and our government had taken warnings seriously and had their hair on fire sufficiently to stand up all agencies on high alert, the airplane highjackers could have been stopped. It would have required focus, urgency, and extra intensity on the part of law enforcement, airport screeners, and ticket agents, some very good luck, and the sharing of existing intelligence among all of them. But it could have been done.

Having served on the commission that issued one of those warnings as early as January 31, 2001, I suppose this question still plagues me more than most, and I suppose it will until I die. But there are lessons from this for all of us to learn. Those lessons have certainly been learned by the New York City officials who remain on a higher degree of alert than most of the rest of the country and whose intense focus on the security of their city saved lives very recently. But the rest of us are still relying on luck more than diligence.

I go on seeing the faces of those firemen, and I always will. And I marvel at their courage.

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12 Responses to “Pictures of Unnecessary Events”

  1. Gary Hart: Pictures of Unnecessary Events | Ameri-Site Says:

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  2. Nicholas Says:

    That courage comes from the conviction that America is built on the individual greatness of each of us. From a history of competition and compassion, from which we are taught to go out and win, but then help the other guy up. From a fundamental humbleness that deep down inside, we are all equal with a shared responsibility to care for each other. From a puritan work ethic that drives each of us to succeed and do our duty, regardless of the cost. It comes from the freedom of each individual to control his own destiny. It comes from the entrepreneurial “can do” spirit that infuses many Americans.

    From Jim Bowie, Colin Kelley, Todd Beamer and millions of Americans who have freely sacrificed themselves for a greater good, they had the freedom, the love, and the courage of their convictions to give their most precious possession. One cannot underestimate the blessings and essence of America, that it is equal in the minds of many, to the value of their own life.

  3. Gary Hart: Pictures of Unnecessary Events | CelebUtopia Says:

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  4. MJR Montoya Says:

    I think this is one of the best questions I’ve heard in a long time. What is the cultural, psychological, or biological root of this thing that we call duty? How is responsibility mobilized into something actionable each and every day. If we were all forced to take a moment to evaluate the level to which we mobilize our actions in the name of a sense of duty, it might be a shocking revelation. I’m not saying we are lazy. Many people are, many people aren’t. And I’m not saying people aren’t driven. There are zealots around us every day. But the kind of service Sen. Hart has mentioned I liken to an act of generosity, not only in service, but in spirit. The firemen who went up those stairs on 9/11 didn’t ask themselves what kind of people they were saving. They didn’t select people based on their ideological preference. There is something more generous about that call to service, and I think it’s something that is worthy of deep and serious contemplation.

  5. Michael Says:

    Extraordinary courage indeed. And the willful disregard of the Bush administration to warnings it received about an impending attack are well documented. But isn’t there another element here? Bin Laden himself said the 9/11 attacks were retaliation for the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia. After the attacks on 9/11 those troops were removed so, evidently, their presence in that country was not really necessary. Perhaps if it weren’t for the enormous military-industrial complex in this country throwing its weight around the world without regard to blowback, 9/11 might never have happened. That’s certainly something we should be thinking about right now as US troops kick down doors in the unwinnable Afghanistan war, or rack up ever more “collateral damage” with Predator drone attacks in Pakistan.

  6. Brian C. McCarthy Says:

    I believe that sense of duty comes from a spirit of community that endures in the human psyche, despite all the instances of self-interested behavior that we are exposed to daily. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy to bring that feeling of community to the surface. One may cynically argue that New York’s firefighters and police were only doing their jobs that day, but many of them went far beyond the reasonable requirements of their jobs and many New Yorkers from all walks of life, people who had no job-related obligation to do so, volunteered to aid the injured and missing victims in the days and weeks following the tragedy. New York is the most diverse community in the world — some of its inhabitants rarely, if ever, associate with people outside their own ethnic or religious background — but threats to the community as a whole have had the effect of unifying people for the common good, even where great personal sacrifices are required, not only on 9/11 but in other instances as well. Thank you for writing this blog. It is a welcome change from the anti-New York sentiment that is too often expressed in the rest of the US.

  7. JT Says:

    Check in with Al Gore, who made a speech that touched on this topic years ago, when if the message had resonated, it would have made a difference. He said that a vigilant intelligence gathering effort with any of our major leads in 2001 could have led to a breakthrough and arrests and maybe even the prevention of 9/11.

    It is a good speech, you should look it up.

  8. Phineas Says:

    Sen. Hart: Since you put yourself in a minority, I’ll put myself into an even smaller one.

    I don’t subscribe to the notion that those firefighters were courageous for simply going into harm’s way. No doubt there were courageous acts that day–by firefighters and others, but there’s a difference between courage and duty. Coal miners put themselves at risk when they go deep into the earth to supply us with a major source of fuel; loggers – I believe the most dangerous occupation in America – fall trees so that we may build houses and keep those houses warm; fishermen help feed us. They all do what they are trained (and paid) to do. What they do beyond that might constitute courage.

    But you speak of indellible images. For me they’re a little different. I have the image of Colin Powell before the UN, in Stevensonian fashion, showing us the ‘proof’ of WMD in Iraq; and there’s the image of George Bush in front of the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.

    And more recently, there’s the image of New York Mayor Bloomberg, making a statement following the discovery of a failed Times Square car bomb, telling us – after first thanking all the law enforcement people standing beside him for being there, of course – telling us that New York City is the safest city in America, and then seconds later telling us how the Department of Homeland Security needs to funnel more resources to the City, because it’s the biggest target. Huh?

    You may praise the officials of New York City for their elevated focus on security. And you’re probably right that some of them are working very hard. But let’s also not forget it was a T-shirt vendor who spotted and reported the car. Not law enforcement, not a fancy camera system, not anything paid for with any of the billions of dollars this nation has spent on anti-terrorism.

    September 11th might have been prevented. I was among your supporters and among those saying “listen to him!” when you spoke on the commission’s behalf, uttering the unheard warnings of possible future actions.

    But there’s more to it that simply how to prepare for attacks, and what sort of security we need. There’s the question of why they happen in the first place. As a college professor, I’m sure you wouldn’t accept in answer to that question “because they hate our freedoms” as an answer from any of your students. Nor should any of us.

  9. Gary Hart Says:

    In response to JT, I do indeed know of my former colleague, Al Gore’s, speech. And as early as 1999 a commission on which I served warned of devastating terrorist attacks to come. There is no doubt in my mind that 9.11 could have been prevented by serious diligence.

  10. Tomas Says:

    Just as we consider the incredible courage highlighted here, we should also consider the incredible lack of courage that keeps those in positions to do something from doing it. Indeed, the Hart-Rudman Commission, among others, brought these warnings to every conceivable official, all the way up to the White House, and nothing happened. What else could you call that but cowardice?

  11. Andrew Strat Says:

    Not to take anything away from those firemen, in hindsight, it was a horrible mistake. The question is: at the time, knowing the terrible risk they faced in going forward, what drove them on anyway? Duty? as in deontological duty? The matter is a question for psychologist to study since it most certainly has an empirical answer. It was not the first time that men and women risked their lives to try to save others.

  12. Jim Cox Says:

    The incredible bravery and sense of duty displayed by the first responders and the thousands more used (literally)in the cleanup is mirrored by the profound cowardice of the very people who had any chance of preventing 9-11. In their youth, by avoiding possible danger to themselves and in their sworn duty as elected officials by ignoring the wisdom of those who knew better, including yourself, (elected) Pres. Gore, intelligence agencies from around the world, etc. Don’t let facts get in the way of getting your way. I have more opinions on 9-11,but as I am new to this site, I will hold fire until I see if I get through.

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