September 11, 2001

Copyright (c) 2001 by Kenny Felder

In the weeks since September 11, I've been collecting people's reactions to the attack. Some people are very angry, others are circumspect, and still others are personally afraid. Some are thinking strategically about how to win a land war in Afghanistan; others just want to help the victims and punish the evil-doers. Some people blame only Osama, some blame Islam, some blame US foreign policy. Some people will miss the Twin Towers, and others are hoping they will be replaced with something a little less ugly.

But one reaction is almost universal: people are mourning the tragic deaths. The New York Times is running stories about some of the victims, to remind us that these were people, not statistics. Mayor Giuliani said that "6,000 people did not die. One person died 6,000 times." I've talked to a number of people who could not stop crying over the victims, although they did not know any of them personally. They lay awake every night for days or weeks, unable to sleep, thinking about the individuals who were stuck in the stairwells, or who jumped out of the building. They thought about the families, about women who had to explain to their children why Daddy wasn't coming home.

And I know this is a terrible thing to say, but I find the whole thing a bit...hypocritical.

Please don't misunderstand me—I am not trying to minimize the tragedy. I know a lot of innocent people died, and I think President Bush is doing a great job of meeting the threat head-on. And I also know that if I had lost a personal friend or family member, I would think of the attack as the worst event in history. But I didn't. And I guess what bothers me is that there are so many senseless deaths every day, and I don't hear anyone mourning those. So I did a bit of Web browsing. From what I can tell, on a typical day in the world, about 148,000 people die. Of those,

Just like the World Trade Center 5000, these numbers are not numbers—they are real people. They had hopes and dreams and fears and memories that are now lost forever. Most of them leave behind friends and family members, who must somehow go on despite the loss. On September 11, 5,000 people died in Manhattan. On that same day, 24,000 people died from hunger. And the next day, another 24,000. And the next day and the next day and the next day. 55 more will die while you are listening to this radio commentary, and every one of those people is as real as your mother.

So why are so many people, who have never particularly worried about the 24,000 per day, staying up nights worrying about the 5,000? Why are they donating blood, when they have never done so before, despite the constant need? Why are they donating their money, or driving to New York to help, when last year they wrote a check to the United Way at Christmas and then forgot about it for a year? Why am I not doing more?

One possible reason is that the problem of hunger is too big to get our arms around. Jesus said the poor will be with us always, and 2,000 years of history have borne him out. You can't really face something that big and awful, especially when there doesn't seem to be anything you can do about it. But if that is the reason, it's a cop-out. A lot of organizations do a great job of helping poor people get jobs, build businesses, educate their children, and pull themselves out of poverty. These organizations are limited only by their resources—the more we contribute our time, money, and ideas, the more good they can do. So, once again, why aren't we doing more?

An uglier possibility is that what we think is altruism is actually just fear. It's very sad that people are dying of AIDS and malaria and hunger. But, in some way that is hard to define, those people are different from me. The people in the World Trade Center were a lot more like me. That makes it a lot easier to sympathize with those people.

Sound crazy? Then ask yourself this—why is it that when there is an accident overseas, we hear things like "200 people died including 12 Americans." Why should I care how many were Americans? Is an American death worse than a Tanzanian death? If Kenny Felder were French, would a French death be worse? Since I live in Chapel Hill, do Chapel Hill deaths count more than Durham deaths? The World Trade Center deaths were close to home. That means they could happen to me. And my fear for myself makes me care a lot more about them.

My sister suggested a different interpretation. She says that people are reacting to the World Trade Center just because it is in the media. Because we are getting stories about all the individual people, their plight seems very tangible. If that really is the explanation, then maybe there is hope. Maybe we need the media to publicize more of the stories of the hungry and the sick. This one was a father of three who raised flowers; he died today. There was the woman to whom all the neighbors turned for health care advice; she died today. Here was a five-year-old girl who loved to sing; she died today. Maybe we can all realize that every day, one person starves to death, 24,000 times. And maybe we can start to mobilize our national will toward a new kind of war. Maybe we can take a vow as both individuals and as a nation to help one real man get a job, to educate one real child, to break the cycle of poverty for one real family—millions of times.


From: Gary Felder
August 24, 2008

I have nothing to add except bless you for saying it.

From: Mark Aman
September 11, 2009

Interesting essay. I know for me I have a love for my country and fellow countrymen which does make it more meaningful for me in terms of how I react to it based on an event that is not naturally occurring most of which you pointed out in your essay, i.e. an attack on my country. But are all human deaths equally tragic? Yes they are and particularly needless ones are even more so. You are correct though that distance seems to ameliorate the tragedy and numbers are more than numbers though the press may not see it that way always.

From: Kerry Anthony
September 11, 2009

I really enjoyed reading this one (again).

From: Randy Tallent
September 11, 2009

I'm not sure which of you is more correct, you or your sister, but I think they tie into each other. I also think part of the reason so many people felt fear was because of the media. But, when that typhoon hit the south pacific 4 years later, there was also an overwhelming response of aid, and that gave me hope, because I agree with you: Why are American deaths on American soil more tragic than deaths in other lands. I've always felt its a little silly the pride we all take in something that is completely an accident of birth. Not that I don't think American values of freedom and independence aren't great, but the people alive today aren't the ones that created them. Instead we've watched our generations eat away at them with greed and selfishness until the sticky sickly mess of bureaucracy, lawyers, lobbyists, and media has taken us down to something that would terrify the rebels that dared to think differently about the world, and tried and tame a new one.

From: Robbie Bluestein
August 31, 2011

All of the 148,000 people who die each day weren't on TV when it happened. America was a collective Eyewitness to Mass Murder. I get what the real message of your essay is—where is such outward displays of grief when a child succumbs to starvation...but...the sight of airplanes, (a uniquely American innovation) being used as missiles against the symbols of our country was unconscionable. Most of us don't know the faceless names who die around the world from this or that. But almost everyone knew someone who was affected that Tuesday in September. I recognize the issue you raise but I disagree that we shouldn't have in anyway, lowered our grief. Remember, we watched both towers collapse, heard stories of heroism on flight 93, and at the time nightfall hit, we didn't KNOW 5,000 people had died—if you recall the estimates were much much higher. We knew we were at war, we knew it was to be a war fought on new battleground with new methods and objectives, and the righteous indignation we felt then manifest itself—although for a short time—into a patriotic fervor. One other note—I was in Brazil when the Delta jet crashed in Dallas that day in the 1980s. When the news broke, they spoke first of the crash, then were quick to say no one from Brazil was on the plane. Nationalism knows no borders!

From: Cheenu Tiwari
November 6, 2011

I happened across your 9-11 essay and found it really insightful. For me especially, 9-11 is a very profound and impacting event that is affecting us even today. I find 9-11 important because of the economic and psychological toll it has wreaked on the US. The World Trade Centers were really important to economy, and when they were brought down, especially in the most dramatic way possible, the economy dropped (at least in the long run).

Not only was the economy down; everyone was angry, scared, and demoralized! I agree that this is kind of hypocritical, and I agree with your sister about the media influencing it a lot. I also feel that a lot of it has to do with the overall dramatic atmosphere that accompanied 9-11. After 9-11 occurred, there were news reports and videos of people in the Middle East cheering for Osama bin Laden and celebrating on the streets. That really disgusted the American people, causing the war in Afghanistan and more.

I feel that dramatics really play a part in how people feel about world events, especially things like poverty and terrorism. Take a look at the famine in the Great Horn. The media was all over it for a time, showing the harsh conditions in the aid camps and starving children. That is what is getting people to send aid to the Horn. Let's take a look at starvation and how dramatics play a role. There are so many people dying from starvation as I am writing this, but most people don't think about it all the time. It takes something dramatic, like a starving group's futile and hopeless rise against their selfish dictator (this is not necessarily true), along with media influence, to get everyone to help those people and condemn the dictator. Media and dramatics go hand in hand!

From: Barbara Shelton
November 19, 2011

I was looking for physics help for my daughter when I saw your essay. Awesome! Yes it was tragic, but to also look at the number of deaths happening daily is overwhelming. Most Americans do not think of the 'other' deaths. The attitude of I know it is going on is easier to forget. If it doesn't happen in your life then you are not really affected. When you are affected you then become aware. That area of your brain where you suppress this knowledge comes alive. I have preached to my 3 grown children that we make our own way in this world. When you see the homeless person at the gas station begging for water, buy it. Many passed him by, cursed at him. Think about others, our state, country, the world is a mess. While on the floor of my bathroom this past April 25, with 2 of my children, my granddaughter (3), dogs and cats, the roof was being ripped from my home. The roar was deafening, then the silence, then a wall of water. We survived, but my thoughts were about those that didn't. You are so right, what about the others happening at that same time. This state, Arkansas, was hit hard, but many other states were also affected that night and the days that followed. The media, the attention lasted as long as death and destruction happened. It happens every day all over the world. We can not forget!! Thank you for sharing your essay.

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