It’s been nine years since planes crashed into our buildings and killed almost three thousand American civilians. Our nation has been through one long war in Iraq and is still struggling with another war in Afghanistan. As much as it seems like the world is in conflict right now, it’s necessary to remember a few things. The people who died in the Twin Towers nine years ago include foreigners as well as Americans…Muslims as well as Jews, Christians, and atheists…immigrants as well as people whose families have been here for centuries. The real conflict occurring in the world at this moment is not between Islam and the West, but between extremists of all stripes and the rest of us who wish to live in peace.
According to the United Nations, roughly two thirds of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are not caused by NATO forces but by Taliban fighters – their fellow citizens. On the other side of the coin, there are thousands of Westerners in Afghanistan helping bring medical care to civilians, helping build schools and irrigation systems, helping reassemble a country that has been shattered by thirty years of war. That is not war as most people imagine it…that is people from one society risking their lives to help people in another society. War is a terrible thing, but extraordinary acts of courage and generosity happen within it. We must remember that as we commemorate this terrible anniversary.
President Obama has just announced that Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta of the 173rd Airborne will be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for acts of heroism in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Tim Hetherington and I spent many months in the Korengal chronicling the deployment of Guinta’s unit. A few months after the battle that cost the lives of three American soldiers, I had the chance to talk to Sal about what happened that night. First Platoon was walking single file down a ridge called the Gatigal Spur, and they stumbled into an L-shaped ambush that had been laid by a dozen or so Taliban fighters. Most of the lead squad was hit and wounded and one man – Sergeant Josh Brennan – was separated from his unit and dragged off alive. Sal Guinta sprinted after them, throwing hand grenades and firing his rifle, and succeeded in rescuing his friend. Tragically, Brennan died of his wounds - but he died surrounded by his brothers in First Platoon, rather than by enemy fighters.
Guinta is widely thought of as an extraordinarily brave man. Ironically, he might be the only person in the country who doesn’t quite agree. “I didn’t run through fire to do anything brave or heroic,” he told me. “I did what I believe anyone would have done.” In that moment Giunta was more worried about his friend’s safety than about his own, and he acted accordingly. As far as he’s concerned, anyone in First Platoon would have done the same thing.
I know it sounds farfetched, but sometimes I like to think about how that impulse would play out on a larger scale. Giunta was willing to risk his life for another person. Could a community do that for another community? Could a country do that for another country? (Some would argue that that’s exactly what happened on D-Day.) Could a religion do that for another religion? I don’t have the answer. I guess we’ll find out. As a country, I don’t think we’ll survive unless our political leaders - on both sides of the aisle - figure out how to think a little more like Sal Guinta and his brothers. As a world, I’m not sure we’ll survive if we decide that one religion or one society is the root of all evil. It’s an old lie and a tired one.
Think about the people who died in those towers nine years ago…imagine what they would have us do, if they could communicate that somehow. I promise you, they would not want us to hate. It was, after all, a stranger’s hatred that had cut short their lives. They would want us to do the exact opposite of the thing that had killed them. On the anniversary of that awful day it is the job of every person in this country to figure out exactly what that might be.