September 23, 2004

Taking a Comment Tour

Today's Musical Selection: "Midnight Star" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

Hi, everyone. You know, one of the things about writing a blog like this and permitting comments is that you never know what people are going to respond to. As likely as not, you can write a long involved treatise on something you care about, and it'll be completely ignored. Toss in a throwaway comment or a little sidebar, and it'll get people buzzing.

Such was the case with yesterday's column. The column was intended to comment on the way economic logic looks so cold and unfeeling in the face of emotional suffering. Once I'd made my point, though, I found myself running a little shorter than I wanted to (loyal readers probably would have considered this a reprieve). So, looking to fill a couple paragraphs, I weighed two related topics that the conversation with my friend had made me think about: the way that improved economic statistics don't improve the mood of someone who's out of work, or the payouts to the 9/11 victims. I thought the 9/11 connection was a little more germane, so I stuck that in there, so naturally everyone commented on that part. I should have known.

Let's start with loyal reader PG, who disagreed with my contention that the payments to the 9/11 victims were strictly an emotional reaction by the country:

The government fund was created as a way to prevent litigation against the airlines, Port Authority et. al. People who opt into the fund agree not to sue these parties for their loss (though the suits against non-American actors, such as the Saudi government, may still be permissible). This is not a purely emotional reaction, but a very economically calculated decision to ensure that the airlines and other parties that could possibly be considered liable for the deaths are not bankrupted by lawsuits.

The family of a Twin Towers worker who died in a car crash on the way to work could sue the person whose negligence caused that accident, and the government would let that one play out in the courts, but there's enough litigation surrounding 9/11 as it is without having 3000 suits against American Airlines.

As PG is a law student herself, and a formidable woman generally, I defer to her erudition on this. It makes me feel better, in a way, that Economic Reason is restored to its throne. Which is another reason that people don't invite me to cocktail parties.

But the bulk of the commentary devoted itself to the definition of "heroism" as applied to the 9/11 victims, which isn't even something that I talked about, but a matter that generates a fair bit of heat and light. This was the subject of a fairly feisty debate in the gallery. The thread started with loyal reader Carl of FoolBlog, who shares my outlook on the economic issues:

You are not alone in wondering why the 9/11 victims' families got so much money. I also find it mildly bothersome that the victims have been so frequently referred to as "heroes." The firefighters, cops, etc., who lost their lives trying to save others, yes, those people are heroes, no doubt. But someone who just happened to be at work at the WTC on a floor that was hit by a plane is just an unfortunate person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing particularly heroic about that, at least as far as I can see.

After correcting me on the legal/economic aspect of the 9/11 payouts, PG weighed in with her take on heroism:

As for the "heroism" of the people whose entire role in 9/11 was having been so unfortunate as to die that day, I agree that calling all victims "heroes" evaporates meaning from the word. However, the people on Flight 93 who deliberately crashed the plane in Pennsylvania to keep it from hitting another target, and all those who attempted to rescue people from the Towers and Pentagon, certainly qualify as heroes for their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others. (Though it's worth noting that the Flight 93 passengers knew at that point that they probably would die in any case, whereas the first responders could have avoided their duty and saved their own hides.)

Papa Shaft, who makes a study of aviation, wrote in to dispute PG on the passengers of Flight 93:

Not to be an asshat, but the commission investigating the crash of United 93 concluded that the passengers were unsuccessful in breaching the door to the flight deck before impact. Whether this is true we'll never know, but it seems a bit questionable to state outright that the passengers aboard that flight deliberately crashed it to save another target in Washington (unfortunately).

All right, let's begin at the beginning. This is obviously a touchy subject, and whatever anyone says, it's bound to irritate someone. So I'll just auto-generate some hate mail to myself and save the critics the trouble, so spare the poison pens, okay? I've got it covered.

First thing, like Carl, I'm irritated about the excessive use of the term "hero." It offends my linguistic sensibilities. (Between my grammar-hammer tendencies and my fascination with Economic Reason, it's a wonder anyone ever talks to me at all, no?) Dying in a tragic accident, or a terrorist attack, doesn't qualify you for heroism in my book. Heroism involves putting yourself at risk to save someone else, and making a choice to do so. (If someone falls out of a window on top of you, saving his life, that doesn't make you a hero if you just happened to be standing there. If you ran to the spot to break his fall, then you're a hero.)

By this standard, just reporting to work at the World Trade Center and perishing that day, or getting on one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, pretty obbviously doesn't make you heroic. Being a rescue worker who went into the wreckage to save those trapped in it is just as obviously heroic. This certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't honor the office workers who died We should simple select a more appropriate term, such as "victim."

Now, what of the passengers on Flight 93? It seems that they might fall into a sort of gray area. Does it matter that they knew they were going to die anyway? Does it matter whether they succeeded or failed to enter the cockpit and force the plane down?

While it's true that a passenger on a doomed plane has less to lose than a rescue worker who, as PG points out, could choose to stay home, it's equally true that the passengers don't have to do anything. They can sit quietly and wait for the plane to crash into its intended target. They chose to prevent further suffering and loss of life when they didn't have to. Does the fact that they were already likely to die make them less heroic than the rescue workers? I think we're splitting hairs too fine to consider degrees of heroism in this instance.

But what of the commission's finding that the passengers did not breach the cockpit? Does that make the passengers unheroic? I would say no; heroism as defined above is a matter of intent more than deed. I certainly doubt that anyone would argue that rescue workers who died in the wreckage of the Twin Towers without saving anyone were unheroic. Therefore, I see no reason to call the passengers on Flight 93 unheroic if they did not actually gain entry to the cockpit.

I do think, however, that Papa Shaft's note is important, because we should remember our history as accurately as possible. I can understand why some people might prefer to remember the passengers' attempt as successful even if it wasn't. After all, heroism may be a matter of intent, but mythology has a strong preference for successful acts of heroism. We don't write stories and sing songs about the guy who, say, tried and failed to stop the Chicago fire. It makes for a better story if the Flight 93 passengers were actually responsible for forcing the plane down. It also makes us feel better about ourselves as a country; getting caught with our pants down security-wise is a potentially big blow to the national morale. But we can't let those urges blind us to the truth of what happened.

In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, we were hungry for stories of American courage, of our citizens triumphing over the terrorists. Matter of fact, given the still-dangerous conditions of the world, we still are hungry for stories like that. But as far as I'm concerned, the fact that the passengers of Flight 93 even made the attempt is a fine example of American courage and heroism. We shouldn't have to re-write the ending falsely in order to make ourselves feel better.

Americans are used to Western-style heroism, where at the end the guy in the white hat stands tall astride his horse while all the guys in the black hats lie bleeding in the dirt. But life isn't always like that. We'd be well-served, as a nation entering the early stages of a long and dangerous war on terrorism, to develop a more realistic concept of what to expect. We can start by accepting history for what it is, and not twisting the ending to suit our conception of what it should be.

That's it for me today. Mush tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at September 23, 2004 07:51 PM

Not to be any more of an asshat than Papa Shaft, but the precise words of the Commission's report (I got my copy from Kroger!) are:

The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them. The airplane headed down; the control wheel was turned hard to the right. The airplane rolled onto its back, and one of the hijackers began shouting "Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest." With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes' flying time from Washington, D.C.

Jarrah's objective was to crash his airliner into symbols of the American Republic, the Capitol or the White House. He was defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers of United 93. While the passengers did not themselves crash the plane (presumably if they'd gained control of steering, they'd have preferred a safe landing), their decision to rush the cockpit forced the hijackers to crash rather than follow through on their original plan of hitting D.C.

Posted by: PG at September 25, 2004 03:36 AM
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