36 hours after the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., Bill Moyers talks with Andrew Delbanco, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University and Dr. James Forbes, Senior Minister of the Riverside Church of the City of New York.
BILL MOYERS: They just kept going up, a survivor said to the rescuers. We were going down for 85 floors and we met them coming up. All the way down, we met them coming up. And they kept coming into the morning and the night.
They’re still there now. Andrew Delbanco, you teach the Humanities at Columbia University. You’ve written on the American dream, on Satan, hope and evil. After plumbing into the very depths of human nature, what conclusion do you reach about why men do what we saw those firemen do?
ANDREW DELBANCO: I find it very hard to find words that are adequate for the images that we just saw, and I would say that it would be presumptuous of me to try to express what animated those brave men because I don’t know. I don’t think any of us knows how we would behave under circumstances like those. But I can tell you that my son called me yesterday and said, “Dad, everyone was running with good reason away from that burning building. The firefighters and the police were running toward it.” it was a reminder that human beings can reach deep, deep within themselves and find unfathomable courage.
BILL MOYERS: They almost do it unthinking. They do it out of some deep sense of what?
ANDREW DELBANCO:Well, they’ve committed their lives, I think, to the proposition that our lives have meaning when we support and help others. I don’t think it’s fair to say they do it out of instinct or out of some sense of rational duty. Those people are heroes. One of the things we saw in New York in the last couple of days is that this is a beautiful human city.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, I mean, none of us… With the images we saw yesterday were familiar in a strange kind of way in the sense that we’ve all seen them in the movies. It was almost as if, I found an air of unreality about the whole thing. But as the hours went by and particularly today and we begin to feel the real human toll, the real human cost behind what happened, the city was coming together in just the way that the mayor said.
An image that stays with me is the face of the New York City fire chief standing behind the mayor this afternoon when the mayor spoke of a firefighter who died in the line of duty who had ten children at home.
You could see on the face of the fire chief the solidarity, the human understanding that a great many New Yorkers have shown in the last couple of days.
BILL MOYERS: As I was coming into the studio a little early, someone told me that at last count 700,000 New Yorkers had lined up to donate blood.
ANDREW DELBANCO: I know a lot of people who lined up and were turned away and told that they’ll probably need them next week.
BILL MOYERS: Yet there is this deep paradox that is impossible to escape over the last 36 hours. Here were these men racing into those flames, rescuers, firemen, police, emergency workers, willing to die to save human lives.
And they were there because there were other men who had been willing to die to kill. How do you wrestle with that contradiction?
ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, I think the great religious traditions as I understand them all have a sense that we have within ourselves… Human beings have within themselves a great capacity for cruelty and hatred as well as a great capacity for compassion and goodness.
There’s a way in which I think human beings are at war within themselves. Maybe our responsibility as teachers and as parents is to try to put together and now hold together a society where the best of ourselves can be encouraged and the worst of ourselves can be suppressed.
BILL MOYERS:Do you believe in evil?
ANDREW DELBANCO: I don’t see how anyone can have experienced even indirectly as you and I sitting here have the events of the last last day and not take seriously the existence of evil.
One of the things that a number of writers have said about the devil — some people believe in him as a literal being, some people believe in him as a metaphor or an image or a representation of these dark, human capacities — one thing that a number of writers have said is that the cleverest trick of the devil is to convince people that he does not exist. We saw evil yesterday. We have to confront it. We have to face it.
BILL MOYERS: Evil is defined as?
ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, for me I think the best I’ve been able to do with that question is to try to recognize and come to terms with the reality of the fact that there are human beings who are able, by convincing themselves that there’s some higher good, some higher ideal to which their lives should be dedicated, that the pain and suffering of other individuals doesn’t matter, it doesn’t have to do with them or that it’s… That they’re expendable, that it’s a cost that’s worth making in the pursuit of these objectives. So evil for me is the absence of the imaginative sympathy for other human beings.
BILL MOYERS:The absence of a moral imagination, the ability to see what the consequences of your actions are to someone else?
ANDREW DELBANCO: Yes, the inability to see your victims as human beings. To think of them as instruments or cogs or elements or statistics but not as human beings.
BILL MOYERS:You have written about your concern that Americans have lost the sense of evil. Is what happened in the last 36 hours going to bring us back or is it too deep for that, our absence, our loss of memory.
ANDREW DELBANCO: I think it simmers. It’s dormant in all of us. We don’t want to acknowledge it. We want to explain it away. We want to find extenuation for it. In a modern world we mostly live in a place where the terrible suffering of the world seems far away-abstract and unreal and we can somehow imagine that it hasn’t anything to do with us. It came home yesterday. I think a lot of people in this city and in this country are searching their souls.
BILL MOYERS:.how do you… How would you like to see us respond to this and what troubles you about how we might respond?
ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, the other, I think, wise thing that many writers have said about the devil is that his other terrible trick is to convince us that evil is everywhere.
I would worry that Americans in making a forceful and effective and determined response to what has happened, that we must not allow ourselves to see evil everywhere, to see it under every stone, to see it in our backyard, to jump to conclusions about who is on the dark side.
We have to remember we have to try to make use of this experience to remind ourselves what the core values of our civilization are, after all, and what they are — as far as I can make out — is our abiding respect for the dignity of the human individual. We have to keep that first and foremost in our minds.
BILL MOYERS:I like that term as we all do, but what do you mean by the dignity of human individuals.
ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, I mean in this case that we have to face the
Reality that in order to protect ourselves, we won’t be able to live, I think, with the same degree of freedom, of choice, and of action from the inconvenience in the airports to the question of how safe will our privacy be in the future as for very good reason government agencies press further into the private lives of people they suspect may be involved in this kind of activity.
As this historical drama unfolds — none of us can predict how it will go or what the future will look like — but as it unfolds we have to do our very best to preserve our rights as individuals, our rights to privacy, our rights to lead our lives as we choose because that’s what makes us Americans.
BILL MOYERS: A friend of mine, Larry Wright, a writer formally with the New Yorker, wrote the screen play a few years ago… Recently, a couple or three years ago for a movie called “the siege,” not a great movie but an interesting movie in which there was a terrorist attack on the united states.
Larry wrote that the greatest consequences came downstream when we surrendered our liberties and surrendered our values in order to punish and pay back those who had afflicted this evil on us.
Is that a real fear here on your part?
ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, it has to be something in our minds.
If we look back at the second world war which was a time in which Americans showed themselves to be heroic, something like the way we saw in the last day or so.
We also know that we violated the rights of many innocent Americans, Japanese Americans, and we have to be careful that we use that proceed noun “our” that I was using a moment ago inclusively, that we understand that what gives this city and this country its uniqueness is its diversity. We have to do what we can to remember that. But at the same time we’ve seen evil. We’ve looked it in face. We have to respond to it effectively.
BILL MOYERS:You were going to teach a class in the morning at Columbia.
ANDREW DELBANCO: Yup.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the subject.
ANDREW DELBANCO: The subject is the origins of this country of ours, the origins in New England in the 17th century. In fact I went into class briefly yesterday for just a few minutes and read to my students a beautiful passage from a sermon that one of the puritan founders delivered on his way over in which he said we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must love one another. That was about all I could think of saying yesterday and probably try to say something like that tomorrow.
BILL MOYERS: What does literature have to tell us about what has happened?
ANDREW DELBANCO: It tells a good deal about the worst capacities of human beings and about the best capacities of human beings. It tells us that people have been in situations like this before. It shows us how they have responded, sometimes inadequately, sometimes heroically. It makes us feel less alone. It makes us understand ourselves better, I think.
BILL MOYERS: But I talked to you earlier just briefly. I had the sense that you think something different has occurred this time, that some transformation is possible out of this that we have not experienced before and that literature may be silent on it.
ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, for my generation, I’ve been a member of a very lucky generation. I’m pushing 50 years old. We enjoyed a great deal of freedom in our childhood… Freedom in the sense that Franklin Roosevelt defined it, freedom from fear. I don’t think anybody feels that today. We hope we’ll return to a normal life but life will never be quite the same.
BILL MOYERS: My wife and partner and I have some sense in listening to the news and talking before I came here that things may get bleaker now, that the worst is not over.
ANDREW DELBANCO: There’s an ominous cloud moving north over Manhattan island as we speak. It looks a little bit like a symbol of something.
BILL MOYERS: A toxic yellow.
ANDREW DELBANCO: Indeed.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much.
ANDREW DELBANCO: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Andrew Delbanco. Now we will turn to some words that seemed to some of us appropriate for this hour. The words are from the Poet Susan Scott Thompson. They’re read by wonderful actor named Peter Francis James. The pictures are from the last 36 hours.
PETER FRANCIS JAMES: We pulled each other closer in the turn.
Around a center that we could not see.
This holding on was what I had to learn.
The sun can hold the planets, earth, the moon.
But we had to create our gravity.
By always pulling closer in the turn.
Each revolution caused my head to whirl.
So dizzy I wanted to break free.
But holding on was what I had to learn.
I fixed my eyes on something out there firm.
And then our orbit steadied
So that we could pull each other closer
In the turn.
And if our feet should briefly leave the earth,
No matter, earth was made for us to leave.
And arms for pulling closer in the turn.
This holding on is what we have to learn.
BILL MOYERS: James Forbes, you are my pastor, my spiritual leader, senior minister of the riverside historic riverside church here in New York and co-chair of the partnership in faith for New York City. What do you tell people like me when I know that innocent people have died?
JAMES FORBES: I respond most frequently with a little less verbosity than the characteristic of a man who spends a lot of time in the pulpit. It is not easy to have words that are adequate to address what we are thinking and what we are feeling, and it is not always easy to come up with wisdom about the exact path we ought to take.
So my response is usually to acknowledge the enormity of the emotions we are feeling in these situations and to try to be sober, to have a sober spirit and a reticence to leap to premature solutions to what seems to be a problem without adequate responses from us.
BILL MOYERS:What questions are your parishioners bringing you in the last 36 hours? What are they asking? What do they want to know?
JAMES FORBES: It’s amazing that someone called earlier this morning and said, “we don’t know what you’re going to say on Sunday, but we are going to be coming. One of the things we want to know is, is there any word from the lord?” that’s one question that somebody asked. Another asked, “you’ve been talking about Lord a lot. Do the activities of the last hour or so… Does that activity change what you’ve been saying about God?” That’s another question they’ve asked.
Then they are saying, how can we act now when we do not even know how many members of our congregation are touched intimately by these circumstances and we do not know the fallout from the events of the first few hours of this tragic time?” So can we even figure out which way to begin since we do not know what is even unfolding now from that first shock wave?
BILL MOYERS: What do we do about our grief? How do we handle this angst, this anxiety, this deep fear? I wonder if there’s any word from the Lord when the Lord is spoken on the lips of the terrorists who take the planes down?
JAMES FORBES: You know, as I have waded through these hours and stayed fixed on the television, I am reminded a word from the psalms that talked about how fearfully and wonderfully we are made in regards to grief, it’s amazing how the body has been constructed to help us to deal with times when there is shock and overload.
The body has a way of, if you’ll trust it and sort of slow down and not allow each impulse to determine what our actions will be, if we can just be still long enough, act if we must, cry if we must, rant and rage if we must, but be still to give the body a chance to sort out the multiple impulses until some wisdom emerges about a safe step towards a positive outcome.
BILL MOYERS: So words don’t always cure grief?
JAMES FORBES: Probably words are least competent when it comes to grief. A presence, a sense of trust, community and maybe some few things we do that show that we’re going to keep on keeping on.
BILL MOYERS: But trust. You know, I heard a very prominent religious leader in this city yesterday say — believing and trusting — God has to have a purpose with this. The implication is that God had a hand in this. Does the God you believe in have a hand in something like this?
JAMES FORBES: I am so glad that John Bennett, who was once the president of Union Seminary when I was there and a professor, quoted Romans 8:28 that we used to say, you know, God is at work in everything and all things work together for good and God did it.
He said, “God does not will everything, but God wills something out of everything.” That’s a more solid theological perspective. I don’t want to sit around attaching blame on God, nor am I even prepared to be clear how much blame should be put where. They’re seeking who the perpetrators were. It’s much better to say, okay, these circumstances have happened. We’re going to do some analysis. We’re going to find the best we can.
Out of it all we have to ask, how do we take these disastrous circumstances and bring something that reflects our character and directs us towards a more constructive future? That’s my way. I’m not too easy about assigning the blame in terms of a divine causation of all of these events. Even human beings, not always sure which human beings I have to blame, but out of it, if tragedy comes, make it pay by delivering something of value in the days ahead.
BILL MOYERS:.if people want to do something but they don’t know what to do, if your parishioners want to deal with their grief through action, through commitment, what can they do? What do you urge them to do practically?
JAMES FORBES: Practically, I urge them to give themselves the gift of some space to be quiet. That’s one thing. I mean I know it’s… My first impulse was to get in the line to offer my blood. I plan to do that. But give yourself a chance to be quiet. Second, give yourself a chance to be in conversation. When all of these feelings come flooding, it’s very important not to trust your momentary impulses. In fact, like in terms of medical situations, it’s often better to get a second opinion because your first impulse may not be the wisest one.
I think also for those who are volunteering to be able to turn to the congregation and say, if there are folks who have needs that I can render, some support for, do it, as the people who opened their homes over in Staten Island for the people that came from New York, from the mainland of New York saying we may be the outpost but our home is open. Or parents that had students that stayed over.
Do what you can in the climate of now until better days roll around. Volunteer. Call up your friends. Check on people that you have not heard from. Do some reading. Then, did I say pray? Let me add that as a preacher. I thought I’d save that for last, to pray and to worship. All of these activities are available.
BILL MOYERS: I heard a wonderful interview, we heard a wonderful interview yesterday and somebody said we just need three things: we need money — it costs money — blood, blood donations and we need prayer. I wish I could have gotten to that person and I can get you to. What do you mean by prayer? That word comes so easily. Those casualties yesterday included men and women of prayer.
JAMES FORBES: When I say prayer, I really think it sounds like i’m talking about saying some words to God. Even before I get to that, prayer is the posture of attempting to be in resonance with the ground of our being, with the God we believe made us, trying to orient our existence, our thoughts, our actions in line with what we think are the most people would say that maybe the sorrow and the suffering,
They have been perhaps the teachers that have made us wise and who have shaped our character for those of us who have been able to tilt when we were tottering on revengeful response to life or the search for the possibility. I think we’ve discovered that the hard places have probably had more to do with shaping our character than anything else.
BILL MOYERS: I long ago thought believing, as I did when I was a young man, that life has meaning, that there is meaning in this proto-plasm that we have in common, this D.N.A. And all of that. I do believe — and you’ve helped me to see this and others — that you can put meaning into life. We have to invest meaning in life. How do we do it after this horror?
JAMES FORBES: Well, I’ve decided to remember one thing that a teacher told me. At the heart of human sinfulness is our unwillingness to trust the security which God sends.
What I’m going to do is I’m going to spend a little time saying, what really gives me security? Security when there is no longer the protection that I thought I had. Is it possible for me to find a rock upon which I can stand that terrorism and even assault of war will not take completely away from me, a place of meaning? So I’m going to reassess where am I standing? What’s strong enough to really put my life on? My faith tells me there is a place where the wars should come, famine, pestilence; there is a place, if we can get in touch with it that allows us to keep on living amidst all of the perils that stall being us by day or night.
That’s one of the things I’m going to do. Where am I standing? Where is my support? What do I believe in? And what is the meaning that I want to see in my life while I’m living or if I had been on one of those planes or if I had been one of the firemen that went up and lost life, could I envision that I could say my life was worthwhile, nevertheless? And can I live it so that it is not defined always by whether I live or die? That’s what I’m going to try to help figure out in the wake of all this.
BILL MOYERS: That brings us to the end of this special broadcast reflecting on the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Here in New York and in Washington. Gwen Ifill and I will be returning over the coming days continuing this special series of PBS programs: America Responds. Immediately following this broadcast, I’ll be back on many public television stations with New York voices, The Day After.
This transcript was entered on April 30, 2015.