Sunday, September 11, 2011

Our choice to be strong

Published in The Tennessean, Sunday, September 11, 2011

by Richard J. Grant

Ten years ago today, I happened to be living in the Middle East. It was early evening, the end of the workday, when I arrived home to see the television on with the image of one of the twin towers burning.

When the second plane hit, we knew that a bigger story was unfolding. The more we learned, the more we had to question the reality of our surroundings. But it was to our surroundings and the events in them that each of us had to react. In some places more than others, we could be reminded of Robert Browning's words, “For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.”

Watching from 6900 miles away gave an odd sense of safety despite being closer to what might well have been the source of the problem. What soon became apparent, in a land where appearances are always deceiving, was the difference in deeper sentiment. But strength is always respected, especially when applied wisely.

Many shared the thought that we cannot let “them” stop us from carrying on with life. For that evening I had planned to get a haircut, and despite several hours of unplanned television, I still had time to do so. A routine, tedious task had suddenly taken on the aura of defiance. But when I realized that I was sitting in a chair with my Muslim barber standing behind me holding a long blade, it took on the aura of an IQ test.

I already knew about “known unknowns.” Profiling works both ways. Personal relationships give mercy an edge over justice; and slicing customers is bad for business. It is also frowned upon by the local rulers who provide effective incentives to refrain. Even for most sympathizers, martyrdom is no more than a spectator event.

The barber watched me curiously as I met a colleague outside the shop; he seemed puzzled by my hand gestures as I described to my colleague my theory of how the towers collapsed. My colleague and I now had reason to forget that it was also one year since one of our colleagues had been murdered.

Our lost colleague and friend had been in Vietnam in the early days. He described the uncertainty of what he was up against in those days when he worked on the insertion and extraction of special-operations troops. Though he spoke of carrying out injured colleagues and of patching up the helicopters, his only malady was hearing loss from the heavy use of the 50-caliber tools of his trade. Perhaps that is why he did not hear his attacker approaching decades later.

In happier times when asked if he had any desire to go back to Vietnam, he replied, “I didn't leave anything there that I need.”

Another close friend, who had recently headed home by sea, was in the Atlantic on September 11. He did not get caught in the disruptions of air travel, but his ship was compelled to land in Boston rather than New York. A few weeks later, he was back in uniform ready for his fourth war.

Enemies limit our choices. But they can never stop us from choosing wisely. First and always, we must choose to be strong.

When we leave the Middle East and Central Asia, we will see that we didn't leave anything there that we need.

Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics at Lipscomb University and a senior fellow at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. His column appears on Sundays. E-mail:

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2011