Amid the ruins, a tribute

Posted: Sep 10, 2002 12:00 AM
One of the nicest things about America, you might say, is its niceness. Our ideals are high: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. We tolerate -- sometimes to a fault. We fly to others' aid. We assume nobody would want to injure us. Until we discover them injuring us. A year after that horrible September day, the horror remains hard to swallow, impossible to assimilate. Us? Why? What had the workers in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the passengers on those ill-fated airliners, to do with the rage of Bin Laden & Co.? Nothing. The New York Times' splendid, Pulitzer Prize-winning thumbnail sketches of the victims make clear their general ordinariness as bowlers, gardeners, sons and daughters, parents, churchgoers. It would have been possible on Sept. 10 to envy the lives of the brokers and bond traders who raked in huge profits from their endeavors. The next day, envy was wholly out of place. "This transitory life" -- as the Book of Common Prayer calls it -- had had its way with us again. Niceness had failed to suffice as a protection and an emollient. At the same time, the word "niceness" starts to itch. There is a vapidity to it. What might work better? "Decency"? Try it out -- "decency," with connotations not only of smiles and elbow nudges but also of honor and faith. The character of Americans is founded on decency (making room for those constant exceptions sprouting from the rocky soil of Eden). The past year has demonstrated the decency of Americans and the corresponding indecency of their enemies. A bloody-minded enemy strikes without warning. Americans respond in two ways: 1) They run to the aid of the injured; 2) they rise to arms with proportionate force and extraordinary attention to holding down casualties among the enemy's own people. Who thinks it would have been thus a few hundred years ago in Europe -- or in Asia today? An act of barbarism like the mass murders of Sept. 11 would be regarded in most venues as an invitation to exact eye for eye. What if freelance Americans had blown up the Grand Mosque in Mecca? Just to ask is to conjure up catastrophe. The custodial arrangements that captured Taliban and Al Qaeda members have received from their American captors annoy the American Civil Liberties Unions but almost nobody else. No thumbscrews, no firing squads, the guarantee of a day in court. The imagination staggers and reels. We invest suspected murderers with rights? It never occurs to us not to. Touting national virtue has since the 1960s been accounted a shrill and embarrassing enterprise -- the activity of mere chauvinists. We are supposed rather to beat our breasts for past offenses against Indians, slaves and women, not to mention the rugged outdoors. The breast-beating craze seemed silly enough before Sept. 11; it looks all the more ludicrous now. A population consisting of racists and misogynists would shame itself on an occasion such as this. It would foam at the mouth. It would strike out blindly. None of this our country has done. With decency has gone nearly unthinkable dignity, the kind few other nations -- excuse the chauvinism -- could have mustered under the circumstances. A major share of the credit goes to the immensely dignified, if increasingly maligned, Bush-Cheney administration. Say this for the maligners: Their freedom to carp or complain -- like now over administration motives vis a vis Iraq -- testifies further to their country's underlying decency. Do we tar and feather the dissenters, egg their cars, hoot at their children? American decency forbids it. We hear them out. The First Amendment underwrites this right. No such right exists in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran or like paradises of intolerance. What a country, the United States! What a people, the Americans! Was it worth 3,000 deaths to reaffirm American dignity and decency? No one would put it that way. Still, that is what has happened -- amid smoke, rubble and twisted beams, the surprise discovery of treasure.