Remembering September 11, 2001

As the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. approaches, many of us are drawn to recognizing the losses and sufferings of that day.  Yet moral horrors and losses happen to people around the world, and they are not accorded international recognition.  The appreciation of ubiquitous suffering can be paralyzing, can it not?  Is there a virtue of mourning, and a vice of excess in contexts in which my losses receive more generous attention than others’?

As it happens, I am also currently labouring over a paper honouring the work of philosopher Sara Ruddick, whose loss to this community in the past year is also being recognized at several philosophical conferences.  My work on Ruddick is currently preoccupied with her 2003 essay, “The Moral Horror of the September Attacks.”  As always, reading her helps me consider possible answers as to the appropriateness of ongoing sadness.  She reminds her readers that all losses merit appreciation:

 [A possible] argument finds the September attacks insignificant when compared to other evils: deaths in the thousands rather than the millions, an assault of only half a day, quick death by force and fire rather than by extended torture and humiliation. The attacks seem almost trivial compared to evils of the holocaust, slavery, and apartheid; to many massacres and much extended suffering under brutal tyrannical rule. …

Evils differ in degree and kind. A sense of perspective is important. But in comparing evils we may trivialize or excuse the “lesser,” thereby inuring ourselves to great suffering.  What matters is the specificity of moral horrors, of evil, of anyone’s pain and loss.

Drawing on the correspondence of Arendt and Jaspers regarding the Holocaust, Ruddick adds:

This correspondence contains a double warning both against mythologizing “the horrible” and against denying the distinct horrors of what is done or suffered. Since September 11 the danger of mythologizing, even clinging to, the horrible has been evident. It has been harder to grasp the distinct moral horror of the attacks or even to appreciate the difficulty of that task.

Ruddick concludes on a note of lament, which affords a sort of sympathetic comfort even as she reminds us that victims’ stories and our own memories of that day are not consoling.  If we continue to remember the day with pain, perhaps it is because violence does not end.  It may ask too much to greet this anniversary, and her last sentence below, without sadness.

The values of “home” can be destroyed on factory floors, in prisons and mind-numbing schools, through “terrorist” violence and terrifying war. They can be destroyed at home. But they were not destroyed in the September attacks.

Nor did these values in any sense triumph. The September attacks are about damage and loss; intimate, emotional, social, and political loss. The victim stories are stories, true enough tales of what some people did. They express certain values, but they do not console. Instead they offer one way of beginning to grasp the moral horror we have witnessed and to feel the bitter loss of what violence has killed, now kills and will kill again.

5 thoughts on “Remembering September 11, 2001

  1. It is always concerning to me that we in the United States are so deeply traumatized by what occurred on September 11th but do not appear to have any remorse or compassion for far, far greater attacks by the United States on other peoples. What, do we suppose, is felt by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilian noncombatants as were the people in the World Trade Center. Perhaps for some people, idenitification with “one’s own” tribe overwhelms empathy and compassion for and with all human beings who suffer violence, whether committed by the USA or other terrorists.

  2. Sophia, you are of course right. But I think Sally was warning of the dangers of trivializing ANY act of violence by setting it against one of greater magnitude. That seems to be an even harder moral task than feeling remorse for the violence our nation has inflicted on others.

  3. If my comments sounded at all trivializing of the September 11th attacks, I apologize. That is not what is in my heart. Is it true, that we are tribal, and that we feel for our own and decreasingly for others as they are more removed, that is, the more “other” they are? Do we learn this?

  4. I have always found this question philosophically and morally important, Sophia, but the answer I tend to return to won’t be very helpful: People clearly differ in this capacity, so much so that learning empathy is a social obligation if we are to correct our natural variations.

    Some people seem more inclined to wide menschenliebe than others, from early ages. But we know that empathy can be taught, that imaginative leaps of sympathy can be habituated.

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