US vs. Them

Posted: Sep 26, 2001 12:00 AM
In the ordinary sense of the word, Abe Zelmanowitz was no hero. A saint maybe, but not a hero: Heroes die saving other people's lives. Those two guys who, in the midst of their own hurried flight, paused at the 68th floor of the World Trade Center to carry a disabled woman 68 floors to safety -- those guys are heroes.

Abe accomplished nothing, really, except to decide on Sept. 11, 2001, as the twin towers of death and fear filled his 27th-floor office, just what kind of man he would be. We can't control death; it comes to us all in the end. But that choice, Abe's choice, we keep to the end: What kind of person will I be?

Abe, a 55-year-old computer programmer, was a devout Jew who read the Torah daily. "Why are you still in there?" his brother Jack demanded when Abe called soon after the first plane hit. Why? Because his friend Ed, a paraplegic, was also there. "You've got to get out of there," Jack said frantically. But Abe couldn't, or rather wouldn't. He couldn't save Ed's life. But he wouldn't become the kind of guy who leaves a paralyzed friend to die alone.

Death comes to us all, but not all of us get to be Abe Zelmanowitz before we die.

Now we are at war, and war is always us vs. them. But who is the us that is at war? Abe's question: Who are we going to choose to be? In the raw emotions unleashed by this act of war, the danger is we will lapse from our high sense of common moral purpose and lash out at each other.

I mean Muslims and Arab-Americans, of course. Americans who bully others are, as President Bush said, the worst of mankind -- not the best of America. But not just Islamic Americans. Last week I opened a file called the Not-My-Enemies list.

For example: Bill Maher made some ill-worded criticism of America's past bomb-'em-and-bail-out tactics, but when the U.S. military strikes, Bill Maher will be rooting for them. Bill Maher is not my enemy. Jerry Falwell took one traditional Christian response to national disaster -- as a call to profound repentance -- and degraded it to partisan bickering. But Jerry Falwell did not wake up on a bright September morning plotting to murder his way to paradise. Jerry Falwell is not my enemy.

The ordinary people who in their fright and shock advocate indiscriminate mass bombing are deeply in need of both comfort and leadership, a call to reasoned action -- but these Americans are not my enemy.

Susan Sontag is not my enemy. Intellectual elites conditioned to believe that violent people are always the product of injustice, ignorance or poverty, and that the habits of mind and tactics appropriate to resolve conflicts on the playground or in the counselor's office form an adequate theory of how to respond to naked evil -- I pity their moral confusion, but they are not my enemy.

And yet, even with maximum need for charity, I do not think the debate over who we are can be postponed. Our enemy hates "not what we do, but who we are," wrote Joshua Micah Marshall of the American Prospect: "They hate our crass frenzy, ... our libidinous music and the fact we've collectively decided to govern ourselves not by our privately held ideas of moral or heavenly absolutes, but by the rule of law." Diversity, materialism, secularism, tolerance -- he lists the goods we fight for. Is this who we really are?

I have two sons, one of them 18 years old. I am not willing to risk either's life for materialism, diversity, secularism or tolerance. I believe passionately in religious liberty, but not because I have agreed "to disagree about life's most profound truths," as Marshall formulates. Instead I am willing to fight and suffer and sacrifice for America's liberty, including our God-given right to individual conscience. We owe it to Him as much as to each other to defend religious and political freedom, with our lives, if necessary.

Millions for defense, not a single penny for tribute, went the 19th-century battle cry. I wouldn't ask a dog to risk its life for secularism or materialism, but everything I have for God, and country, and liberty. Do you see the difference?