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.