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Tragedies Remind Us of Who We Are
An essay by NPR's Scott Simon

audio Listen to Simon's essay.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon

Sept. 15, 2001 -- There is nothing good to be said about tragedy or terror. But sometimes, such miseries seize us with a sense of utter clarity -- remind us of who we are, who we love, and what is worth giving our lives for.

Jeremy Glick of Hewitt, N.J., called his wife, Lyzbeth, during the last moments of United Flight 93 -- the flight on which the selfless resistance of several passengers may have saved it from being propelled into another national monument. As Mr. Glick prepared to use the last moments of his life to save others, he phoned his wife and said: "I love you. Donít be sad. Take care of our daughter. Whatever you do is okay with me."

The depth of his love, compressed and clear as a diamond.

This week, the fear citizens suddenly feel about Americaís security may have caused many Americans to admit to themselves how much they love their country -- love it not with blind devotion, but unblinking recognition of its faults.

"Itís not that Americans donít want their country to change, in a thousand different ways. But this week, many were reminded that America still seems to them to be that place in the world where change is most possible."

Scott Simon

They love the America they can chide for having 31 flavors of ice cream -- and people from 200 nations around the world living within its borders.

They love the America that can be giddy, superficial, and materialistic -- but also funny, delightful, and generous.

America can abound with silly, daft, malicious, and even dangerous ideas -- because people here are free to express any damn-fool idea that comes to them.

America can be bigoted and inhospitable -- and it takes strangers from all over the world into its arms.

America has been targeted by a few fanatics who are willing to kill thousands, and themselves, to bring that nation to its knees. But far more people from around the world have been willing to die just to try to live here.

Itís not that Americans donít want their country to change, in a thousand different ways. But this week, many were reminded that America still seems to them to be that place in the world where change is most possible.

Patriotism has often been the last refuge of scoundrels. But what place is there in lifeís race for those who twist their faith into a weapon to run through innocent people?

There are mullahs among Americans too, of course. And I don't mean -- and in fact, I particularly don't mean -- American Muslims who have had to contend with threats and harassment in recent days. I mean good self-proclaimed Christians -- notably the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson -- who have suggested that what they find to be America's moral laxity on a hundred different questions (from abortion rights to gay rights to the length of a hemline) brought this staggering attack down upon ourselves.

And just as mandarins in the Pentagon used to say "collateral damage" rather than "killing civilians," there are other fervent people, still stinging from the damage of Vietnam, who will characterize the military action that America will organize as "revenge" rather than "self-defense." Their arguments sound six days old Ė which, this week, is a whole generation of difference.

When George Orwell returned to England after fighting against Fascism in the Spanish civil war, he felt uneasy over finding his country so comfortable. His country, he said, with fat Sunday newspapers and thick orange jam, "all sleeping the deep, deep sleep. . . from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs."

This week, Americans, with our 40 different kinds of coffee drinks and diet pills, heard that roar. And the blast awakened a gratitude to live in a country worth loving, and defending.

Scott Simon is host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.