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We Choose Honor
by Elie Wiesel

Nobel Laureate Elie WieselThis page was compiled and edited by Michael R. 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 World Peace."

There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
—Elie Wiesel

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.
—Elie Wiesel

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 chosen murder.

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 victims?

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 be theirs.

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 history.

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 was there.

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 in man.

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 contagious.

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