"Not in Vain"
by Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS
Holidays are times for important things. Soon after celebrating Christmas with family and friends in the security and warmth of cheerful homes, I made the journey to Manhattan. I felt that it was important for me to visit Ground Zero. I wasn't sure why, but I knew I had to go.
The city was alive with holiday visitors. Shoppers were flooding the department stores. There was an absolute mob scene at Rockefeller Center. It was almost impossible to walk around the skating rink. As usual, every ethnic group in the universe seemed to be mingling in this sea of humanity. The cacophony of various languages made the Tower of Babel seem orderly.
Soon, though, I hailed a cab. Lower Manhattan was very congested. I could get no closer to the World Trade Center than four blocks. As I walked the final distance, the noises of the city subdued. Mothers hushed their children. I asked a policeman standing almost at attention near the end of the block where I might get the best view of the devastation. He told me that I should walk all the way around the sixteen acres of land. I looked at him for a while. As I went into a nearby church, a fireman in full gear was leaving. I also looked at him.
Paul Tillich says it so well. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to do what must be done in spite of the fear. The firemen and policemen of New York have certainly touched a cord in the hearts of Americans. I felt honored to stand in their presence. They have no idea what might happen to them each day. Yet they go to their posts. They prepare to save and to help. In spite of their fears, they do what must be done. They are men and women of courage. America needs this example.
As I continued my pilgrimage, I came upon St. Paul's Chapel. The gate around this modest church has become something of a shrine. Heart-rending notes, photos, banners, shirts, flowers are everywhere. Visitors touch the wall in filled silence. Thousands of people move with reverence and respect. I thought of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have so nobly advanced."
Terrorism flourishes only in a relativistic and selfish world. Terrorists claim that only their values matter. They define life on their terms and relativize all other claims. The firemen and policemen (and our courageous military throughout the world) do neither. Heroes stand for values that transcend cultures.
My young philosophy students tell me all the time that freedom means "I can do whatever I want." They are relativists (in theory). They could become terrorists. It is much harder for them to say this now. They must at least add: "...if it doesn't hurt others." But once a person introduces some meaningful limits to freedom, one is on the road to becoming a moral person. Selfishness is broken. The tiny bud of human solidarity appears. It is true that we are indeed limited by the presence of others. True human freedom is a limited freedom. We are made for one another.
Once this notion of limit is present, terrorism loses it power. The fuel that feeds terrorism is the illusion of absolute freedom. If the other person has some rights independent of me, then I cannot do anything I wish. If another is valuable, independent of what I may think, then my actions must take this value into consideration. Values that transcend the self make terrorism simply stupid.
Let us pray that the heroism of the good people of Manhattan will lead to a rejection of moral relativism and selfishness in our land. What a wonderful way to honor the dead. There clearly are rights and wrongs. What happened in New York was wrong. The way the people of New York responded was right.
Press Release: Not in Vain by Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS | Posted on: 1/3/2002
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