Guest column: Unity born of tragedy

Is it possible to attain communal compassion without a tragedy? We must all learn to empathize without waiting for disaster, writes Michael Corrigan.

September 11 will always represent a sad and frightening anniversary for Americans. Each generation has its similar dates when the world seems to change in a sudden dangerous way, foreshadowing future disaster. My parents never forgot where they were on that Sunday of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. At first, they thought it was another radio drama by Orson Welles who created national panic with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast on Halloween, 1938. Many Americans really thought Martians were invading New Jersey. My parents quickly realized the Pearl Harbor news was not a fictional drama. I remember the exact moment I heard President John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

I was teaching Speech Communications at Idaho State University when the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. That morning, I happened to see the aftermath of the first plane hitting the north tower, and assumed it was a tragic mistake. As I was watching the news, the second plane crashed into the south tower. The pentagon soon took a hit, and another plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field. I recall students gathered to watch the enfolding story on the wall televisions.

Their generation’s memories of a national tragedy had begun. The United States was at war.

Some personal memories of 9/11/2001 and its aftermath are positive. I recall my car breaking down in front of a restaurant and customers, including the cook, rushing out to give me assistance. Members of Congress from both parties sang together on the Capitol steps. President George W. Bush joined several former presidents recognizing “a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for victims, family members and rescue workers of New York and Washington terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.” Leaders of several faiths participated, including a rabbi and a Muslim cleric. There seemed to be a sense of unity prompted by the terrible sacrifice of so many police officers and firefighters who died as the Twin Towers came down. There was no time for partisan bickering.

President Trump did criticize the Bush administration for “not keeping America safe.”

For the people of Texas and Florida in 2017, hurricanes Harvey and Irma will create anniversaries marking a time when two hurricanes caused flooding and destruction beyond comprehension. It may also be a source of inspiration considering strangers—not unlike what happened at Dunkirk—helping victims, though according to NPR, one vulnerable part of Houston’s population, undocumented Latino people, avoided shelters for fear of deportation. Many did not receive the help available to them.

Climatologists can watch and track evolving hurricanes so there is some warning. Acts of war and terrorism are a different matter, though some historians might argue the surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center might have been anticipated. Possibly these events occurred because no one at the time could imagine deliberate evil on such a massive scale.

Is it possible to achieve communal compassion without a catastrophe? It won’t happen until all of us are touched by what Lincoln memorably called the “better angels of our nature.”


Corrigan is the author of seven novels. He taught English and speech communications at Idaho State University. His most recent novel is “Mulligan.”


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