Remarks by Alexander Nehamas
Council on the Humanities and Philosophy
Commemorative Assembly, September 11, 2002
than 3,000 people died disastrously a year ago today. We are here
to commemorate their deaths. Why? Innocents have been killed before,
often in far greater numbers, sometimes in much ghastlier ways.
Why these people and not the others? Why September 11, already pried
loose from any particular year, as if its significance went far
beyond the specific events that first fixed it in our minds?
We had long known that the United States was the target, and had
already been the victim, of terrorism -- what country today is not?
The World Trade Center had already been bombed once. We had been
warned that more terrorist actions on United States soil were almost
inevitable. And yet the catastrophe of a year ago was totally unexpected
-- unexpected in the sense that its form -- its means, its suddenness,
its devastating success -- defied both reason and imagination. Almost
like an earthquake, which robs the earth of its substance and often
makes worse rubble of our mental than our physical structures ("Moving
of th'earth brings harmes and feares/Men reckon what it did and
meant," John Donne wrote), it showed there is no end to the ways
disaster can strike and human beings can harm one another.
September 11, 2001 became September 11 because on that day one
more barrier between fact and fantasy, history and imagination,
broke down. Moreover, unlike all other unexpected catastrophes,
it occurred in plain view, for all the world to see. Erupting into
the actual world out of a scene that could have been staged in a
Hollywood studio, the airplanes that smashed down our buildings
also demolished a border between reality and imagination and, with
it, our sense of a strict separation between them. And they forced
on us the realization that the borders between reality and imagination
are always shattered in different places -- places of which we cannot
even conceive until they give way beneath us.
Unexpected catastrophes will never cease and, September 11 shows,
they will come in previously unimaginable forms. Each one of them,
like September 11, 2001, the specific disaster will reveal, and
produce, new ways of harming people and new reasons for hating them.
But these, and efforts to devise new ways of preventing the harms
and new reasons for eliminating the hate, have been among the main
engines of human history, from the cracked skulls of murdered hominids
to yesterday's news, and there they will remain -- as long as there
will be yesterdays.
September 11, 2001, did not cleave time or history in two. It is
-- appallingly -- one of innumerable horrors, past and future, each
of which demands to be addressed in its own specific terms. But
if we manage to see, and react to, that particular event as a part
of history, then September 11 may have a lasting effect: It can
stand for all unexpected catastrophes, as a reminder that our certainties
are transient, our powers limited, our ability to control our fate
-- restricted. That is neither defeatism nor relativism. It is a
proper sense of our finitude, bought at the price of the 3,000 deaths
that blackened that day, the sense of Seamus Heaney's poem on September
11, a free adaptation of an ancient Roman poem on unexpected catastrophes.
He called it "Horace and the Thunder":
can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now,
He galloped his thunder-cart and his horses
a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underneath, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest things
overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked esteemed. Hooked-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing off
Crests for sport, letting them drop wherever.
gives. The heaven's weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid,
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores darken day.
"Anything can happen." No one, no matter how powerful, is exempt
from error, danger, destruction. We need to calm the shrill voices
that lay claim to moral clarity, complete knowledge and invincible
superiority. Moral and intellectual humility, a suspicion of the
sense of infallibility, a willingness to retreat when necessary
in order to go forward in the face of irresoluble uncertainty when
possible are not weaknesses but virtues, in nations as well as individuals.
It is worth recalling that they are also the founding principles
of this country, which, by no means alone in the world today --
or any other day -- is mourning its innocent dead.
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