We were talking about courage. It was one of those post-dinner conversations which, for reasons no one can quite understand, become more impassioned and personal than the subject would seem to warrant.
I had been arguing that, in one sense at least, those who belonged to our parents' or our grandparents' generation were enviable. History had submitted them to the ultimate test of spiritual and physical courage that is war. We who have lived our lives cosseted and untried, whose experience of bravery is domestic and private, are somehow softer than those who have gone before our us. And whatever we do, our achievements are going to be less significant.
Others disagreed. They quoted examples of quiet heroism, particularly among people who are under-privileged, bullied or the victims of hatred and discrimination. In the way we conduct ourselves today, my friends said, we are more evolved, more courageous in our emotional lives, than previous generations.
Personally, I couldn't see it. Prejudice, poverty, individual trauma: these were small things when set against the test of war.
That was just over a week ago. Two days later, a kind of war broke out in Manhattan. The next day, headline writers reached for the world "apocalypse" but, in truth, that was the wrong term. It was too sweeping, too generalised and universal to be of use.
There was something specifically American about what we had seen. Those stricken towers were a weird, unearthly reversal of an enduring image of American potency and expansiveness over the past century, the rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. Only now, in New York, the roar of flames was at the summit not the base, and the mighty propulsion was not upwards into space but down, stabbing into the ground, as if the familiar scene had been tampered with and reversed by some evil special-effects team.
Yet, strangely, what snags in the mind days later is not the enormity of those events but the thousands of acts of domestic love and private, unseen courage that attended them – small things, in fact.
In the good times, love is a glittering, flashy thing that has been captured by celebrity, betrayal and sex. Here it reclaimed its true position. The voices of those facing death, and later, of those trying to come to terms with their loss, did not call out for God or for America or for some noble, abstract idea. Expressions of patriotic rage and bitterness were for others. At that moment of suffering more extreme than most of us will ever know, they sent out to their families, lovers and friends the simple three-word message that has survived a million trashy songs and films to express our defining humanity.
That great domestic strength had always been there, but it took an unimaginable tragedy to remind us of its power. In a more obvious way, the first-hand accounts of what has been happening in Manhattan have pointed out what is so often taken for granted – the courage of those within what are now known as the rescue services.
As many of those who worked in the World Trade Centre were descending the stairs towards safety, they were passed by firemen going the other way. Those men must have known that, with every step they took, they might well have been walking towards their own deaths, but they kept going, just as the police, ambulance drivers and attendants, doctors, nurses and priests who did their work in the shadow of the towers kept going. They were enacting the kind of bravery which is part of their everyday work, but on a grander, more terrifyingly visible scale.
Beyond the towers, the citizens of one of the toughest cities in the world, the natural home of rough, competitive individualism, reacted with the steadfastness, comradeship and warmth that we have been taught to associate with the blitz and with a previous generation. Indeed, in the most extreme kind of test, humanity emerged with as much credit as our parents and grandparents did in wartime.
The question now is whether those virtues, along with the emotional openness on which we also pride ourselves, will be reflected in government. Is it possible to hope that, amid the grief and patriotic fury, the world's most powerful nation and its allies will seek not revenge and blood-letting, but justice? Will they understand that to respond to cruelty with cruelty, to terror with terror, is precisely the reaction that the perpetrators of Tuesday's hideous crime were hoping for?
"Enough is enough," the uncle of four-year-old Juliana McCourt who died on United Airlines flight 175, has said. "For one child to die innocently in Juliana's retribution would kill us as a family."
Mark Newton-Carter, the brother of another victim, has quoted the words of Gandhi: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
It is finding the right political enactment of these views, a public version of the countless acts of private heroism and dignity, that will best serve the memory of those who have died.Reuse content