We Choose Honor
by Elie Wiesel
page was compiled
and edited by
Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry.
You can click here to read his essay: "What
I learned from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Holocaust Survivors, about achieving
There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
Even if only one free individual is left,
he is proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom.
But a free man is never alone; the dictator is alone.
The free man is the one who, even in prison,
gives to the other prisoners
their thirst for, their memory of, freedom.
None of us will ever forget that sunny day in September
when the United States was subjected to a man-made nightmare: a heinous terror
attack unprecedented in contemporary history. It will remain shrouded in
mourning in the violated memory of our country.
Would this terrible act drive us apart, I asked myself, or
draw us together as a nation?
My wife and I were in a taxi in midtown Manhattan. We
looked with disbelief at the gigantic clouds of smoke and ashes hanging over the
lower part of the city. We listened to the radio and couldn’t understand what
we heard. Suddenly our hearts sank: Someone we love worked on Wall Street. Cell
phones remained mute. At home, we found a message: He was all right.
Glued to television like so many others, we watched the
first pictures. They were both surreal and biblical: the flames, the vertical
collapse and disappearance of the world’s two proudest towers. Many of us were
stunned into silence. Rarely have I felt such failure of language.
I remember what I was thinking: "That’s madness,
madness." Two banal words, like an accursed mantra. Sheer madness.
Terrorists wanted to die in order to spread death around them. They demanded
neither ransom nor concessions. They proclaimed no belief and left no testament.
But then what did they wish to affirm, negate or prove? Simply that life is not
worth living? Some observers insisted that they were "courageous,"
since they wanted to die. I disagree: They wanted to kill and to do so
anonymously. It would have taken more courage to live and explain why they had
More questions, many of them, came later: Faced with such
immense suffering, how can one go on working, studying and simply living without
sinking into despair? How is one to vanquish the fear that infiltrated our very
existence? And how are we to console the families and friends of the more than 5,000
The pictures of missing victims, the sobbing of relatives,
the farewell words on cell phones, the sight of hardened journalists weeping …
Days and days elapsed, and the devastated site was still reminiscent of war-torn
Europe in 1945.
I checked history books for a semblance of precedent for
this terror. There may be one. In the 11th century, a certain Hasan-e Sabbah
founded a secret small sect of assassins in Persia. Known as the Messengers of
Death, they roamed around Islam clandestinely for years before fulfilling their
mission. They killed people they did not know, for motives they themselves did
not comprehend. Is Osama bin Laden a reincarnation of Hasan-e Sabbah? No. Those
times and those violent "dreamers" are gone. The 21st century will not
Why, then, the mass murder now? A human earthquake, it was
caused by people whose faith had been perverted. There can be no justification
for it. Can it be explained? Yes, by hatred. Hatred is at the root of evil
everywhere. Racial hatred, ethnic hatred, political hatred, religious hatred. In
its name, all seems permitted. For those who glorify hatred, as terrorists do,
the end justifies all means, including the most despicable ones. If they could,
fanatics of violence would slaughter all those who do not adhere to their
ideological or religious principles. But this they cannot achieve and so they
resort to simply arousing fear, the goal of terrorists since they emerged in
Only this time, they failed. The American people reacted
not with fear and resignation but with anger and resolve. Here and there it was
misguided and misdirected: Individual Muslims were assaulted and humiliated.
That was and is wrong. Collective blame is unwarranted and unjust. Islam is one
of the world’s great religions and most of its believers in our country are
good and decent citizens. That had to be said and our leaders said it.
On the highest level of government, President Bush
immediately charted the right path to follow by declaring war against terrorist
leaders and all those who harbor and aid them. His address before the joint
session of Congress made the American people experience a moment of greatness.
The Senate and the House made us proud. Democrats and Republicans spoke with one
voice. The White House, the State Department, the Pentagon lost no time in
preparing for the battle to come. In a very short while, our entire nation and
its allies were mobilized to wage a new world war whose aims are to identify,
uproot, disarm and apprehend all those who were and are directly, or indirectly,
linked to terrorist practitioners of mass murder.
One thing is clear: By their magnitude as well as by their
senselessness, the terrorist atrocities constitute a watershed. Yes, life will
go back to normal; it always does. But now there is a before and an after.
Nothing will be the same. The political philosophy of governments, the national
economy, the concern over security, the psychology of citizens, the weight of
comradeship and hope: Everything has changed. One will not, as before, take a
plane without considering the possibility of sabotage. Nor will one look at his
or her neighbors without suspicion. We may never visit Lower Manhattan without
pangs of sadness; we all know of someone who perished simply because he or she
But the American people did not bend. Never have they been
more motivated, more generous. Their behavior was praised the world over.
Instead of trying to save themselves, men and women, young and old, ran to
Ground Zero to offer assistance. Some stood in line for hours to donate blood.
Hundreds of thousands of sandwiches, sodas and mineral waters were distributed.
Those who were evacuated from their buildings were offered food and shelter by
neighbors and strangers alike. Rudy Giuliani, the most admired New Yorker of the
day, appealed in vain over radio and television for volunteers to stay away;
they kept coming. And then, one had to see the outpouring of affection and
gratitude toward policemen and firefighters to believe it.
And so, the terrorists achieved the opposite of what they
wanted. They moved people to transcend themselves and choose that which is noble
For in the end, it is always a matter of choice. Even when
faced with the murderous madness of criminals, and in the presence of the silent
agony of their victims, it is incumbent upon us to choose between escape and
solidarity, shame and honor. The terrorists have chosen shame. We choose honor.
I belong to a generation that thinks it knows all that is
possible to know about the thousand manners of dying but not about the best way
of fighting death. And I know that every death is unjust, that the death of
every innocent person turns me into a question mark. Human beings are defined by
their solidarity with others, especially when the others are threatened and
wounded. Alone, I am on the edge of despair. But God alone is alone. Man is not
and must not be alone.
If the terrorists believe they can isolate their living
targets by condemning them to fear and sadness, they are mistaken. Americans
have never been as united.
Nor has our hope been as profound and as irresistibly