Émile Durkheim’s 1897 book Suicide is one of the pioneering classics of sociology. Suicide, Durkheim argues, is not one thing but many. Each person who chooses to end his or her own life has his or her own reasons, which are ultimately unknowable—but if we carefully and systematically observe the social circumstances in which suicides tend to be unusually prevalent, we can see unmistakable patterns that provide profound insights into human nature.
The morning of September 11, 2001 was as bright and clear in Newton, Massachusetts as it was in New York City. I was sitting on the porch of my garden-level apartment, reading Durkheim’s book in ignorance of the fact that as I read, a team of fanatics were executing what Durkheim would classify as “altruistic suicides”: sacrificing their lives for what they believed was a higher good. That “higher good,” in this case, was fiery murder on a massive scale.
I had come in from the porch and was washing my coffee mug when my phone rang; it was my mom, in Minnesota. “Did you hear about the World Trade Center?” she asked. At first I assumed she meant the World Trade Center in St. Paul, where one of our family friends works—but no, she explained, this was in New York. Both towers had been destroyed by hijacked passenger planes, and a third had crashed into the Pentagon. No one knew what was going to happen next.
I assured my mom that I was all right, and went upstairs. My landlords Jeff and Tania were at work, but Tania’s parents were visiting from England, and the family’s Irish handyman was at the house as well. I walked into the family’s dining room, stuffed with furniture since the living room was being remodeled. Also there were the elderly English couple, the Irish handyman, and a television displaying a split-screen image of the smoking towers and crushed Pentagon.
I shouldered my bag and walked to the bus stop. Everywhere, televisions and radios were playing. On the bus from Newton to the Harvard campus in Cambridge, where I was a graduate student in sociology, the bus driver took it upon himself to warn us all darkly. “This won’t be the end of it,” he said. “There will be more.”
Standing 15 stories, Harvard’s social science building was the tallest on campus. The building manager was concerned that the terrorists, having struck at America’s centers of finance and government, would come for our country’s brains next—specifically the sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists. It seems laughable in retrospect, but that day, no one knew what might be about to happen. My uncle, leaving work in downtown Minneapolis, saw a television camera stationed on the sidewalk pointed up at the city’s skyscrapers…because, well. No one knew.
Defying the evacuation order, I went up to my office and grabbed the books and notes I needed to work. I then went to Lowell House, the undergraduate dorm where I was a tutor, to eat lunch in the dining hall. Representatives of the Harvard Crimson came and dropped a freshly-published one-sheet news bulletin on the tables; it didn’t say anything we didn’t already know from TV. After lunch, I went and sat in a large common room that was full of students watching CNN. The dorm’s faculty directors convened a meeting to support students who were still waiting to hear from family and friends in New York. We organized a clothing drive, because someone had heard that would help; I became the custodian of a cardboard box full of hats, mittens, and sweatpants that I later donated to a local shelter.
All day I was hearing from Minnesota family and friends who wondered whether I was safe. From the Midwest, Boston seemed dangerously close to Manhattan. I told them I was all right. The terrorists didn’t come for the sociologists, or the undergraduates, or anyone else that day…or the next, or the next.
Of course, the truth of the matter was that they’d already come for us. As David Remnick puts it in this week’s New Yorker, “The sense of grief and shock, a terrible roaring in the mind of every American, made it impossible to assess the larger damage that Osama bin Laden and his fanatics had inflicted, the extent to which they had succeeded in shattering our self-possession.”
Some weeks later, I sat in Harvard Yard as Larry Summers was officially inducted for his ill-fated tenure as president of the university. It was a crisp fall day, with a stiff breeze blowing clouds past the sun and casting shadows over the long procession of American university presidents who paraded into Tercentenary Theater—in order of the institutions’ founding dates, just to remind everyone who came first. Finally the procession was complete, and the ceremony began. As a choir sang “America the Beautiful,” a plane approached, the roar of its engine growing louder and louder before passing overhead and continuing on. The song ended, and the tweed-jacketed man in front of me let out an audible sob.
“Where altruistic suicide is prevalent,” writes Durkheim, “man is always ready to give his life; however, at the same time, he sets no more value on the life of another.” In the converse situation, one would value all life—one’s own, and that of others. 9/11, and this tenth anniversary, were and are reminders of the value and fragility of our own lives. The lives of others, sadly, we haven’t seemed to value quite as much.