I was in Europe at the time. My schedule called for a visit to Paris on September 10 followed by a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Slovakia, then speeches in Warsaw and Amsterdam on welfare reform and economic freedom. My flight from Paris to Slovakia was uneventful and, returning from lunch in downtown Bratislava, I thought how the city had changed in the decade since I had last visited: the buildings were cleaner, the food better, the service professional and pleasant, the people engaging—not glum as I had noted previously. Entering my room I checked for email, and while waiting for the connection, I heard a news update come in on my phone — “plane flies into the World Trade Center.” Thinking it was some kind of prop plane that had wandered off course, I turned on the television just as the second airliner crashed into the World Trade Center.
Reflexively I prayed for the souls caught in the conflagration and began to call friends and relatives back home. My brother Tony, who lives in Brooklyn not far from where we grew up, was watching the whole tragic event unfold from the roof of his apartment building near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. He later told me that the ashes of those murdered that autumn morning fell across every borough of New York. The ashes, I imagined, fell like the snowflakes at the close of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” falling all across a city I know so well — ashes settling on the lake at Prospect Park where I used to go fishing, softly descending on Coney Island, on the beach where I first learned to swim, encircling the bell tower of Regina Pacis where I celebrated my first Mass as a priest, and wafting on to Old Calvary cemetery where my father was buried and later my mother.
I see the ashes that bright and sparkling summer morning making their descent on the whole of the city, the ashes of corporate executives, secretaries, and janitors, of firefighters from Brooklyn and Queens, men who lived in neighborhoods just like my own, firefighters like Stanley Smagala Jr., whose wife Dena was pregnant with their daughter Alexa when the Towers fell.
The following days for me were a period of numbness as I was received by Europeans with great tenderness and warmth. My uninterrupted itinerary (no planes were grounded in Europe, remember) took me past mounds of flowers in front of American embassies in Warsaw and the Hague, and then, on my return flight, over Manhattan and the smoldering ruins where the Twin Towers had once stood, with my birthplace in its shadow.
Yet, all of this is only the recounting of a series of memories, anecdotes. The human heart craves more. People do not seek merely the facts, but their meaning. So what is it that turns the many anecdotes from that day into a parable?
Much ink has been spilt over that tragic day. The age-old question of evil raises its bewildering head, and I continue to wrestle with that 11 years later. But here is something that came immediately to mind as I was encountering all those supportive Europeans, people who might not otherwise have been so supportive of an American — something underscored when I was a guest on an Italian TV program for a spirited debate (the Italians know no other kind) with some socialists on the meaning of 9/11. It was not their exotic conspiracy theories, much less their untutored economic arguments that struck me. It was the sign on stage, which formed the emotional backdrop for the whole discussion: Siamo tutti Americani ora? Are we all Americans now?
What it meant was that across the divide there was a sense of human solidarity, and few were there who didn’t sense the beauty of it. If I had known then what I since learned about bin Laden, my message to that Italian audience would have been that the mastermind of the September 11 attacks was advocating just the opposite of that human solidarity we all found so encouraging; and I don’t mean this in some vague sense of a man intent on mass violence. It may come as a surprise to some that what animated Osama bin Laden was, at its heart, not merely a primitive form of Islam but something more universal. Bin Laden had dropped clues of this before, but perhaps the clearest one came a year ago, in what appears to have been his final video message. There he asserted that “the path to stop the hegemony of capitalism is to carry out a real radical change” so that the U.S. president “will be liberated, and with him, everyone else, from the hegemony of these corporations.”
Now, I do not know to what extent bin Laden was authentically inspired by a leftist ideology as such, but I can recognize the rhetoric of class warfare when I see it, and it is the antithesis of human solidarity. Envy is as deeply seated in the human heart, I fear, as is the longing for human connection. When one is poisoned by envy, as were bin Laden and his followers, the impulse toward solidarity is easily smothered.
In an age whose history is littered with the miserable failures of various totalitarian experiments, one might be tempted to think that freedom is its own self-evident good. Yet to see the heart of darkness as the world saw it eleven years ago is to understand that certain people for certain twisted reasons choose to go right on employing their freedom of action to destroy the freedom and hope and lives of others.
One might also be tempted to imagine that the answer to bin Laden’s religious mania is a morally neutral public square. But all the great and successful battles against tyranny, all the efforts to build flourishing free societies in the first place, teach a different lesson. Freedom, as indispensable as it is, is insufficient for constructing a society and culture appropriate to man, much less for defending it. If it is to flourish and endure it must be a freedom oriented to something beyond itself, oriented to Truth — the truth of man’s origin, the truth of man’s nature, and the truth of man’s destiny. It must meet envy and the will to negation with an opposite and more than equal force — with the kind of virtue that drove Smagala and his fellow firefighters toward danger that fiery September morning, a virtue that also works in quieter circumstances to knit together the countless ties of a free society.
Soviet Communism spent 70 years trying to eradicate the transcendent support for virtue. It failed but now post-Communist Russia struggles in the wake of that legacy to cultivate a truly free society. And on our shores, in the wake of the financial crisis, we see how quickly a deficit of virtue can lead from capitalism to cronyism, where trust, courage, and entrepreneurial risk-taking and innovation give way to corporate-government collusion, collapse, and subsequent calls for more of the very medicine that accelerated the crisis — a nanny state that feeds on envy while reaching its tentacles ever deeper into everything from the money supply to the mortgage market.
The left appeals to envy and class warfare, while many of its opponents on the right appeal to a goddess of liberty at the center of a morally vacuous public square. But cultivating sustainable freedom is far more complicated and difficult, requiring habituation to just deeds, both visible and invisible. What the hour demands is a deeper understanding of freedom, what has been called freedom for excellence. Such freedom rewards greatness and excellence instead of trying to eradicate them; it permits men and women the space to express, pursue, and create better and higher things and does not condemn their accomplishments out of envy; and it leaves room for the most effective kind of charity to those in need — the face-to-face compassion of private, most often religious institutions.
What all of this means for those of us concerned about the end of freedom in America and in our world, about the decline and possible death of liberty and justice for all, is that we would do well to remember the other “end” of freedom — that the goal, purpose, and destiny of men and women called by their Creator is to lives of virtue in freedom.
The appeal here is as permanent as truth itself, but it also has a pragmatic and immediate dimension. Although declining deficits, an uptick in GDP growth, and better job statistics are important goals, in the final analysis, few will go to the barricades to defend a system’s utility. But for a way of life that protects all that we hold dear, a civilization that elevates our spirits, a culture that is rooted in realities of eternal significance — this is a different story. For such a moral crusade, we will be able to raise a vast army.
This essay was published by Forbes on Sept. 10, 2012.