Like troops before battle
By Peggy Noonan
We have learned, as a minister put it, that the age of the genius is over and the age of the hero begun. The observation is that of Father George Rutler, a Roman Catholic priest who ran to the Trade Center when the towers were hit. As New York’s firemen, the first and still greatest warriors of World War IV, passed the priest on the way to the buildings they’d pause for a moment and ask for prayers, for a blessing, for the sacrament of confession. Soon they were lined up to talk to him in rows, “like troops before battle,” he told me. He took quick confessions, and finally gave general absolution “the way you do in a war, for this was a war.”
When I heard this story it stopped me dead in my tracks because it told me what I’d wondered. They knew. The firemen knew exactly what they were running into, knew the odds, and yet they stood in line, received the sacrament, hoisted the hoses on their backs and charged.
When Father Rutler hears sirens now his eyes fill with tears. There was so much goodness in that terrible place! And he saw it, saw the huge towers burning, melting, saw a thousand Americans hit the scene and lead what is now known, in New York, as the greatest and most successful rescue effort on American soil in all of American history.
The priest, Father Rutler, who was at Ground Zero was, a few days later, on a train on the East Coast. He fell into conversation with a young man on his way back to college. He told the young man what he’d seen, what the firemen had done, how none of them turned back or turned away. And the boy listened and said, “They must have been sick.” The priest was startled; he thought to himself that the boy was a victim of modern philosophy, of the deconstructionist spirit, of modernity.
“They were heroes.” “They were sick.” That’s a division, but it’s not a question, because most of us know what they were. It’s something else we’ve learned since 9/11. And I don’t think we’ll be forgetting it any time soon.
Peggy Noonan is the author of many books and a cherished columnist for the Wall Street Journal. This is a brief excerpt of her Journal column on November 23, 2001.