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Profiles in Courage

Guest Column
Aimee L. Smith

As we approach the first anniversary of September 11, we are confronted with the politics of remembrance at every turn. What started out as a human tragedy with international implications quickly became forced into the exclusive framework of a national attack by those with the largest megaphones -- GE, Disney, and the other trans-national media conglomerates. And to what better purpose could this attack on supposedly nothing less than civilization itself be put than a military occupation of the oil- and natural gas-rich countries of the Caspian Sea region, a re-occupation of the Philippines, a multi-billion dollar corporate welfare bail-out to the airline industry as they proceeded to lay off over 100,000 workers, and a crack-down at home on the very civil liberties that the U.S. government claims gives us moral superiority in the world.

The horrific treatment of women under the Taliban had been ignored for years, not only by Laura Bush, but by UNOCAL, who sought a pipeline in Afghanistan and from whose company sprung Hamid Karzai, the now safely installed U.S.-backed president of Afghanistan. After 9/11, the decades old human rights nightmare for women in civil war-torn Afghanistan were seized upon as an a justification for “regime change” from one pack of gang-rapists back to the previous ruling pack of gang-rapists, the Northern Alliance. Needless to say, most of the women in Afghanistan are not feeling quite as liberated as the White House press team claims them to be.

But as with any good pretext for a territory-grabbing war as the invasion of Afghanistan clearly was, there will have to be martyrs and there will have to be heroes. Suddenly, the FDNY, notorious for their discrimination against non-whites, and the NYPD, of Abner-Louima-raping fame, were exalted as the epitome of honor and goodness. I am not questioning the beauty and goodwill in the hearts of those men and women who somehow managed to violate their own survival instincts and rushed into danger on 9/11, nor the beauty and love of those who put their health at risk in the months-long recovery efforts, working long hours, day in and day out, breathing in all manner of toxins. I am simply keeping in mind that one small human heart can contain such disparate emotions as ultimate sacrifice and violent dehumanized hatred. In fact, I would hazard to guess that these feelings come together more often than not, as evidenced by one FDNY memorial Web site that bears the slogan “God forgives, we won’t,” and goes on to say, “we shall avenge the deaths of our brothers and our citizens” lest any of us let the fires of vengeance flag. Then there was the outcry of New York City firefighters against a racially diverse memorial statue for the tragedy since the event to serve as a symbol for the nation; the hoisting of the flag on the site of the WTC tragedy was carried out by three white men, and “who are we to change history?” Add to this the nationwide racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims and illegal extra-constitutional detentions, and we begin to find that the task of locating perfect heroes is at best a complicated quest.

I offer another model of courage. My long-time family friend “Aunt” Kathy lost her niece in the world trade towers on 9/11. This young woman was also the mother of a nine-month-old baby who will now have to grow up without a mom. My friend is devastated by her loss and is heavy with the strain of supporting her brother in the loss of his daughter. Yet, in all of this senseless tragedy, Kathy hasn’t fallen for the easy path of vengeance. For her, the “War on Terror” has been no salve, but a tragedy to compound the initial tragedy of 9/11.

We are all only human. We have weaknesses, we all can be gripped by fear -- to me, the courageous among us are those who hold onto their humanity, even in the face of brutal and horrible tragedy, irrevocable loss, and fear.

Aimee L. Smith PhD ’02 is a postdoctoral researcher in Department of Materials Science and Engineering.