Rules and obedience have never elevated anyone to heroism and greatness., but I know what does, and I discovered it in the rubble of 9/11.
I was scheduled to be in New York for a convention in early 2002, and sent an email to my old friend Jack. The text was along the lines of “Hey, I’m coming to NYC. Wanna get lunch?” His reply was simple: “Sure, but first I’d like you to come see my new project.”
Jack’s new project, as it turned out, was the restoration of the old New York Telephone building, now called the Verizon building. It was notched into the World Trade Center site, merely a few yards from the destroyed Building 7. This building was badly damaged on September 11th, but it didn’t come down. And it was extremely important that it did remain in service: nearly every telephone line serving Wall Street ran through it.
Lessons from a Disaster Zone
It was a cool, rainy, hazy day. Fitting, I thought. Most of the debris had been removed by the time I arrived, which gave everyone on the job a clean view of what was missing, and how much work lay ahead.
Since Jack and I are old electrical guys, we began by examining the power systems. And thus began a day of epiphanies. Each new piece of information brought others to mind. Every fact implied a lesson. I was grateful to have a good memory; scribbling notes in the rain wasn’t going to work.
The first item on the agenda was the 13,000 volt electrical service to the building. It was running over an aluminum scaffold, inside of a plywood box. Now, you may be thinking that 13,000 volts on a metal scaffold doesn’t sound very safe, and you would be right. There’s no way this installation would be acceptable in any normal circumstances.
But in this case, there wasn’t much choice. This was a disaster zone and an “approved” installation wouldn’t be possible for months. (They couldn’t even get the right kinds of wires.) So, the rules went out the window and Jack’s crew had to come up with something that would work and that wouldn’t kill anyone, or else Wall Street would shut and half of New York would have no telephones. The rules were simply overridden by reality. I couldn’t help thinking of an old saying, attributed to the Dalai Lama:
Learn the rules well, so you will be able to break them properly.
But the big story of the day came after our inspection. At lunch, Jack explained that after Building 7 fell initially on 9/11, other, partial, collapses continued for quite a while. Each time, clouds of dust and debris filled his Verizon building. On one particular day, the FBI vault in the basement of Building 7 caved in under the weight of yet another collapse. “And I swear to you, Paul,” Jack assured me with bulging eyes, “twenty- and fifty-dollar bills came floating through the site!”
Free money… it’s hard to imagine a better setup for a moral dilemma.
I made some comment about the guys being very happy that day. “No,” Jack said, “they wouldn’t touch them!”
I looked at him and waited for some elaboration. Finally he spoke up again. “They said ‘that’s not our money, it belongs to other people.’ And they wouldn’t touch it. They wouldn’t allow anyone to touch it. It just sat there until the FBI guys came through and picked it all up.”
When the lure of free money fails, I pay attention. This was clearly no ordinary event. Here were dozens of construction workers who refused to take free money – a lot of free money – when there was no enforcer looking over their shoulders or threatening them.
I looked at Jack again. He was stone serious; as serious as I have ever seen him.
So I was left facing a serious question: A large group of construction workers were turned into paragons of ethics, but exactly why? Obviously it was the change of situation that mattered, not the basic nature of the men; one’s nature does not change in a moment.
Then I understood: These men had never lacked a basic decency, what they had lacked was moral clarity. This was the first time in their lives when the difference between right and wrong was this clear.
Holding a clear vision of right and wrong, it would have been stupid for these men to take $50 bills belonging to others – their conscious sense of righteousness was worth far more.
For the rest of their lives, these men will know that when it counted, they stepped up to the task and performed it with honor. And I would bet large that, on their death beds, this fact will pass prominently through their minds. They will feel honorable, and they will have earned it.
What this Means
This means that while the fear of penalties may restrain people from certain actions, it is moral clarity that makes them actually good.
I know that we’ve all been taught to freeze up at questions about good and evil, but it really isn’t hard. Here’s all the answer you really need, in two very simple statements:
What is hateful to you, don’t do to anyone else.
Do not encroach upon anyone or their property, and keep your agreements.
Number one is the Golden Rule, and number two is the essence of the common law – more or less an extension of #1. And that’s all that we really need.
Sure, a professional philosopher can come up with weird exceptions, but that’s not a serious concern. Send the one-in-a-million scenario to a specialist and get busy with the other 999,999.
Yes, life is complex but that’s no reason to say “we can’t know right from wrong.” Act with integrity and I guarantee you’ll do the right thing 99.9% of the time.
The events of 9/11 were obviously very stark, and we certainly don’t want to rely on such things to set our moral compass. But, the lesson is clear: It is moral clarity that turns us into heroes and saints.
So, if you want to see good conduct, talk about integrity, self-honesty, and the courage to make individual judgments. If you want to feel good about yourself, cultivate these in yourself. Require them of your children. Oppose people who try to cloud moral choices.
I leave you with a few lines from a song called The Hero, by David Crosby:
And the reason that she loved him, was the reason I loved him too. He never wondered what was right or wrong, he just knew, he just knew.