February, 2003

Fruits of Thought

A Serious Nation

When the Shuttle Columbia disintegrated before our eyes, it was predictable that we would have a week of elegies, tearful interviews and mournful processions. It was, of course, a terrible tragedy. The seven brave astronauts also were parents to a dozen children, and our sadness is magnified by the feelings we know that spouses, parents and children are feeling at their own private loss.

Yet if you want to know how September 11th changed America, you only have to contrast the response to the Shuttle Columbia with the response to the destruction of the Shuttle Challenger on takeoff in 1986. In 1986 our nation was traumatized. We stopped flying into space for two years. There was serious talk of ending manned space flight all together.

Now we are tougher. One cannot weigh the value of 3,000 lives lost on September 11th versus the seven lost on the Shuttle Columbia. But, as a nation, we have acquired a recognition that we do not have as much time for frivolous indulgence as we once did. We recognize that bad things happen in the world and that we have real enemies out there who want to kill us.

Indeed, it was only moments after the Shuttle was gone that Reuters ran a statement from Abdul Jabar al-Qurashi, an Iraqi spokesperson: “We are happy that it broke up,” he explained. “God wants to show that his might is greater than the Americans…God is avenging us.”

They better hope that God is on their side. Little else is. But I don’t think God takes sides that way. In the aftermath of the tragedy, President Bush quoted Isaiah’s prophecy that God watches over the stars: “Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” President Bush continued, “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today…We can pray that all are safely home.”

Note the difference between the Iraqi and President Bush in their understanding of how God works in human affairs, and one can see why the world is at a schism between the West and radical Islam. The Iraqi posits a world in which bravery is impossible, in which the outcome is determined by God, not man. In which humans are helpless.

But President Bush’s words represent a view of divinity that leads us to take charge of our own lives. And it is the maturity of this view that, post September 11th, is guiding our national policy.

Most Americans haven’t paid any attention to the space program since the Challenger exploded. Space travel is fraught with difficulties, but in America we expect success at overcoming difficulties to become routine. There is something particularly American about this attitude. After football hall-of-famer Johnny Unitas threw a pass into the endzone at the end of one game, he immediately turned his back on the ball and began walking off the field. An incredulous reporter asked him if he was concerned to see whether the receiver caught the ball. “He’s paid to catch it,” explained Unitas as he walked off the field.

So Americans come to expect that miracles will be done with regularity.

We went through a period in which our obsessions were with making all things right. If we put speech codes into colleges, then nobody would have hurt feelings; if we manipulated college sports programs, we would have gender equality; and we had Meryl Streep testifying before Congress that no risk was acceptable on pesticides in the food supply.

How silly all these things sound today. They want to kill us by flying airplanes filled with travelers into buildings filled with workers, and she worries about zero risk from pesticides.

We have become a more serious nation. It is interesting that the committee working on filling the twin towers site selected as finalists the two designs that feature the world’s tallest structures. This is important for external reasons, for these towers were attacked as symbols of American might, and you can’t let your enemies succeed. They have to see that our power is multiplied by their efforts, not reduced by them.

It is also important internally. There has been much focus on creating a fitting memorial to those who died on September 11th. But no memorial can be right if it rejects the values of the strivers who went to work in those towers every day. You can’t honor their lives by letting their values be laid low.

If you are in New York and you are in the produce industry, you have to visit the Hunts Point Market. Why? Because in the mundane toil that we all engage in every day, it is easy to lose sight of the majesty of what our civilization has wrought.

In row after row of warehouse after warehouse, each bulging with product brought in from a different corner of the globe, you see our civilization at its finest. The enormous web of organization and effort brings the best of the world to the most humble of Americans. If you stand in the middle of that market in the dark of night when the trucks, the people and the produce are all at their peak, you must remember that nothing like this ever existed before.

This is not bringing in some precious spice for the nobility. Remember that tomorrow morning, the clementines from Spain or Morocco will be at the bodega in Newark, the yautia from South American will find its way to a Korean greengrocer in Brooklyn, and those Asian mushrooms will be placed in an ethnic market in Flushing.  pb