The events of September 11, 2001 showed humanity at its worst and its best. We saw acts of terrible depravity and, in response to them, acts of true nobility. How can people behave in such radically different ways? The answer may be in the way we choose to look at human life.
One view says that human life has no inherent value or dignity. It is a thing to be used; its worth measured by its usefulness to others. The other view maintains that every human life has immeasurable worth. Human beings are made in God"s image and likeness, each unique and irreplaceable. They may not be used as means to another"s ends " rather, they are ends in themselves.
The men who plotted the September attacks showed contempt for life. Innocent people were seen as nameless, faceless targets for destruction. The terrorists were blind to their victims" worth as unique individuals, as loving fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. Their only value was as fodder to fuel a war against modern society. The "masterminds" treated even the hijackers themselves as pawns, sacrificing them without apparent remorse.
Compare this disdain for life with the attitude of rescue personnel and employees who struggled to help others evacuate the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and those brave passengers who forced a plane to crash in Pennsylvania thereby saving countless other lives. Their acts of heroism expressed a conviction that every human life " even the lives of strangers " is precious. Many willingly risked, and lost, their lives. Not because they failed to value their own lives, but because they knew there is no greater love than to offer one"s life to save others.
Recall some of the New York Times" "Portraits of Grief" memorializing victims of the World Trade Center attack:
Abe"s brother said he "could never turn his back on another human being." He refused to abandon a paraplegic colleague in the burning towers and died alongside him.
As a child, one firefighter was "always bringing home someone who needed a meal, or who needed a coat." His mother was not surprised to find a stack of "letters to Santa" in his apartment; every year he anonymously delivered the hoped-for gifts to poor children.
Eric"s motto was "Do the right thing." When not on rescue squad duty, he was a "ubiquitous, modest "Mr. Fix-It" for friends and the elderly" in his Brooklyn neighborhood.
Father Mychal Judge gave his life praying with victims at the scene. His midtown Franciscan friary door was always open to anyone in need. Give him a cashmere sweater, said a friend, "and it would wind up on the back of a homeless person. Go to him with a troubled soul and he would listen intently as long as it took."
These ordinary people are remembered for doing simple things with great love. And whether they knew it or not, they were helping to build a culture of life in which indifference, violence, bigotry and injustice have no place.
Speaking to young people in Kazakhstan last year, John Paul II set forth the central idea of this culture of life: "You are a thought of God. You are a heartbeat of God. To say this is like saying that you have a value ... that is infinite, that you matter to God in your complete unique individuality."
Our lives can matter very much to other people, too. By loving and living for others " as Jesus taught us to do " we can give joy to others and transform their lives.
The September 11 terrorists were not the first, and they won"t be the last, to hold the mistaken view that human life has no intrinsic worth, that it is only material to be used and discarded. This dangerous assumption underlies so many of the ways our culture de-humanizes people:
- many see unborn children as property that a mother can "keep" or abort as suits her situation
- in Oregon, the frail elderly and dying are subtly encouraged to consider doctor-assisted suicide to avoid becoming "burdens" on family and society
- in The Netherlands, euthanasia is both legal and commonplace; depressed teens and babies born with non-life-threatening conditions like Down syndrome are eligible
- one hears supporters of the death penalty complain about the cost of "keeping killers alive" as if the prisoners were no longer human beings with souls that may open to God"s grace and seek the mercy on which we all depend
- human embryos "left over" from in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments can be tossed out or frozen for future attempts; some scientists use these "left over" embryos in destructive research, with some even arguing that using human embryos reduces the need for animal research
- scientists and research groups are demanding that they be allowed to create live human embryos just to destroy them for stem cell research; some even want to pursue human cloning, claiming that "without cloning, there will be no cures using embryonic stem cells."
From abortion, to assisted suicide, to the destruction of "spare" embryos, to creating life simply to destroy it, we have come a long way toward seeing fellow human beings as faceless burdens or as "things" to be used.
Reversing this attitude will not happen overnight. But it is no exaggeration to say the future of humanity depends on it. A society in which new human lives can be engineered, created, manipulated and destroyed as mere research material is not a society that can appreciate the unique gift of each human person.
A culture of life " where every human life is protected, respected and celebrated " begins with a personal decision to respect the dignity of others. But it will take much more than that. We must bear this culture to others through our words and actions, and work for public policies that support human life and human dignity. Above all, we must pray.
In all these efforts, we must never forget the examples of ordinary men and women who have borne heroic witness to the sanctity and dignity of human life. And we must remember always how precious and precarious God"s gift of life truly is.