“We are going to a different world,” said Candide, “and I expect it is the one where all goes well; for I must admit that regrettable things happen in this world of ours, moral and physical acts that one cannot approve of.”
The words in Voltaire’s “Candide” strike us as odd after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. For it seems that the world in which we are currently entering is so closely bound up with tragedy and suffering that we, as Americans, long to turn back the proverbial hands of time.
To be sure, we see tragedy and suffering all the time, flashing across our television screens, but that tragedy and suffering has always been “over there,” outside the safe confines of America. So while we are prone to criticize our nation’s foreign policy or its domestic commitments, that criticism belies a deeply held belief that the future will be brighter and much better than the past.
And yet at this moment our optimism about the future has been crushed, and we find ourselves now groping for a hope that is at once inspiring and yet attentive to the dangers of a very uncertain world.
On each occasion that I have watched the news since the events of Sept. 11, I’m repeatedly confronted by the analogies made to Pearl Harbor or to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. These analogies are made not so much to underscore death tolls but rather to highlight defining moments in America’s past where her innocence was lost.
Tuesday’s event marks a similar point in America’s history for my generation. As such, it speaks volumes about who we have understood ourselves to be — a people who, for the most part, envisioned a bright future for our country.
We were not simply hopeful about the future — no, we possessed a more certain belief — we were optimistic. Any internal critique and reflection that has taken place prior to Tuesday was necessary not to undercut our faith in the security of being Americans or to underscore the possible external threats posed to our liberties and rights, but rather to extend that security to others around the world and deepen humanity’s purchase on democracy. In other words, there was never a question of whether or not the future would be bright, but rather how bright would it be.
To say then that our innocence was lost after the events of Tuesday is to say we held on to it too tightly. Why? Because we have had no sense of tragedy.
We have upheld humanity’s capacity for goodness and justice while ignoring our equally compelling ability to lapse into barbarism and destruction. We have ignored the fragility of our physical safety and that of our deepest held political faith.
Despite knowledge of history, we have cultivated a belief in a future that will necessarily be better than the past. We have set ourselves up not for the events of Tuesday, but for the deep impact that it now has on the very core of who we are. The optimism of my generation has now given way under the weight of human evil, whose impact can be measured by the lost of American lives.
I say all of this because we now find ourselves groping after something that is firm and secure; a feeling that explains such evils but yet is capable of allowing us to imagine a better future. We are now confronted with the following questions: How shall we describe the reality of the world such that it does not seem wholly resistant to our hopes and aspirations, but not completely congenial to them either?
How can we understand ourselves as progressive and purposive democratic citizens, and yet acknowledge that good as well as evil potentially lies beyond the horizon? I have nothing else to recommend but that sober feeling I have managed to muster in the face of our shared tragedy — namely, hope.
It does not tell us how we are now to organize, it does not tell us how we are to find meaning in each and every occasion of tragedy, but it does suggest to us that we do not have the liberty to believe that goodness shall win the day.
Hope reminds us that we must continue to construct life plans, enjoy friendships and bonds of affections and fight for justice and freedom because to do otherwise is to consign ourselves to a life that is meaningless. But it also reminds us that those plans may go unrealized, our friends and companions my die or leave us, and justice and freedom may fall prey to injustice and slavery.
I suspect, my dear friends, that to acknowledge our own fragility deepens our respect for life and our willingness to protect it and ensure its survival. Let this be our guiding faith as we move forward, for it contains the seeds of our salvation.
Melvin L. Rogers is a graduate student in Political Science.