What About the Cowards?

You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder, too. And the answer is, I don't know…but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you're alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do is because…I am a coward.

Floyd Patterson, former heavyweight champion

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is coming up, and I suspect there will be no shortage of television specials and retrospectives about the events of that fateful day. They’ll have names like September 11th: The Day That Changed America, or Two Towers, One Nation, or, if you’re a Fox News viewer, 9/11: Who Will Obama Kill Next?

National Geographic got a head start by releasing a September 11th docuseries earlier this week. Each episode focuses on a specific timeframe and features interviews with people who were present during those timeframes, so the first episode is mostly about the people in the North Tower, the second episode is more about the South Tower and the Pentagon, and so on. The series does a good job of capturing the humanity on display on 9/11.

But I was watching an episode the other night about the collapse of the towers, and one of the people interviewed was Tom Canavan, a securities specialist who was working in the North Tower. Canavan was recounting how he and some guy, a WTC security guard, were trapped under rubble when the South Tower collapsed. Canavan managed to clear a small path out of the rubble, but he’s a bigger guy and the opening was too narrow for him to squeeze through, so he told the security guard to go out first; then, when he got out, he could clear some more space around the opening so Canavan could get out too.

The security guard got out. But then he didn’t come back.

Canavan was able to stick his head out of the opening, and when he did he saw the security guard descending down the rubble. Canavan called out for help, but the security guard just gave him a come on, follow me motion as he walked away. He never turned around. He just kept on walking.

Maybe the security guard thought there was enough room for Canavan to get out. Maybe he was so scared of accidentally burying Canavan, or getting buried himself, that he didn’t want to touch anything. Maybe he was in shock. Nobody can say for sure. Obviously Canavan got out, and presumably the security guard just kept walking until he made it home. But it did make me think.

Every documentary or TV show about 9/11 focuses on the stories of heroism: the people who stayed behind and sacrificed themselves to save as many people as they could; who went up and never came back down; who heard or saw or just sensed the presence of another human being in need and stopped to help. These acts of kindness in the face of unspeakable cruelty are, of course, inspiring: rays of light shining faintly in the darkness, a reminder that there is good in this world.

But those stories have all been told. We know about the heroes of 9/11. I want to know more about the security guard who left a man buried under a pile of rubble, or the guy who quietly headed for the stairs while his coworkers tried to figure out the best way to escape a burning building. 

I want to know more about the cowards.

The World Trade Center complex was enormous. On any given weekday, roughly 190,000 people in total were working at or visiting the complex (50,000 people worked in the offices, another 140,000 passed through as visitors). The 9/11 Memorial estimates that between 16,400 and 18,000 people were in the complex itself on the morning of September 11th, though that figure seems to only count the number of people who were working there or staying at the WTC Marriott. Since nearly 75,000 claims have been filed with the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund — more than 45,000 of which have been approved — we can probably safely double the official estimate to account for everyone who was in the area; for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it 33,000 people. (I’m not including the firefighters, paramedics, and police officers, since they showed up after the first plane hit the North Tower.)

So 33,000 people were there on September 11th and 2,606 were killed, which leaves about 30,500 people. We know that roughly a few hundred of those people acted heroically and lived to tell the tale, which means about 30,000 people survived the impact of the planes and safely got out of the area before the buildings came down. Most of those people — let’s say 20,000 — were probably in little danger, relatively speaking: they heard/saw/heard about the planes hitting the towers, evacuated without incident, and that was that. This isn’t meant to diminish or dismiss their experience, it’s just a simple statement of fact: a lot of survivors who worked in the Twin Towers had no idea what was happening until after they were safely away from the area.

That leaves us with 10,000 people who were in the area and were in danger at some point during or after the attacks, and there is simply no way that every one of those people acted with care and compassion toward their fellow man. Granted, I’m not a statistician, but the law of averages would seem to suggest that 10,000 people all uniformly behaving in such a way is a mathematical impossibility, especially when you consider that 30% of American adults still refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even though COVID-19 kills, on average, a little more than a thousand people per day — or one 9/11 every 3 days.

Secondly, humans naturally prioritize their own self-preservation over pretty much everything else. That’s what makes stories of heroism so powerful. It’s not just that people perform heroic acts, it’s that they do so with every molecule in their body screaming at them to turn around, get out, and get themselves to safety. The heroes of 9/11 weren’t just fighting the external conditions of the day, but human nature itself.

Within that group of 10,000 people, there were probably a couple thousand who missed at least one opportunity to help someone else that day. The majority of those missed opportunities probably weren’t intentional; the scene at Ground Zero was chaotic, and most people were probably so focused on getting out alive that they didn’t even notice. In fact, let’s say that was the case for 75% of the couple thousand people in this group. That still leaves 500 people who could have helped others and just…didn’t.

Some probably figured they wouldn’t be able to help, others probably knew that they could help but weren’t willing to risk their life for a stranger. There were likely also a couple dozen people who told the injured person “I’m going to get help” and just never returned. And I’d be willing to bet that a handful of the people who needed help were in that position because someone else shoved them out of the way or knocked them over while they were trying to evacuate.

So what about the people who didn’t help, or, worse, put someone else in danger in order to make their own escape? Some of them died anyway, I assume, but I’m sure most of them made it out. Shouldn’t we want to know what became of the cowards?

I don’t refer to these people as cowards because I think they’re cowards. I refer to them as cowards because, whether or not they talk about it, whether it’s buried deep within their psyches or eternally roiling on the surface, they probably think of themselves as cowards.

I think of them as human.

Cowardice is natural. It’s not pretty, and certainly not the kind of behavior anyone sets out to engage in, but it’s nonetheless a natural response to trauma and stress. Everyone understands the concept of “fight or flight,” but most people don’t realize that the response we choose depends on our psychological makeup: people who are more concerned about being criticized or rejected by others — i.e., most people — are, ironically, more likely to flee in high-stress situations. We focus on stories of exceptional heroism precisely because they are the exception: most people don’t do the heroic thing, especially if it requires them to put themselves in (greater) danger.

I think the reason we fixate on the heroism is because the more of those stories we hear, the more common it seems, and the easier it is to tell ourselves we’d do the same thing if we were in the same position. Conversely, we have little appetite for understanding people who behave selfishly in traumatic situations. We’d rather bury them under a mountain of disapprobation or discard them entirely. But casting these people out instead of trying to understand them is itself a fear response: we’re afraid that we’ll identify with these people more than we’d care to admit.

There are very few accounts of people behaving selfishly on 9/11, which has contributed to a tidy little narrative that has crystallized over time: Everywhere you looked, people were helping each other. E pluribus unum. It’s a nice thought (though one might argue that we probably shouldn’t be too proud of this brief moment of unity, considering it took a historically unprecedented act of terror to bring it about), but it’s too convenient. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The people who put themselves in harm’s way to help others on September 11th are rightly regarded as heroes, an example of the compassion and kindness and empathy that, at our best, we are capable of. Their stories deserve to be shared, but the accounts of the people who had a chance to help and didn’t take it are just as important. We all like to think we’re capable of heroism; nobody believes they would sacrifice others to save their own skin. It just happens. A lot of people woke up on that cloudless Tuesday morning believing themselves to be inherently good and selfless people, confident that they possessed whatever trait it is that spurs someone to risk their own well-being for the benefit of others in times of crisis.

Then September 11th happened. They saw someone they could have helped but chose to save themselves instead, and just like that their understanding of who they were, their very identity, was stripped away. We should want to hear stories about the heroes and the cowards of 9/11, because they both have value. The heroes are exemplars of humanity, but the cowards are important reminders of our humanness. We know what the best among us did that day, but we never discuss the flip side of that coin: what it feels like to find out you’re not one of them.

Cowardice may have saved their lives, but 9/11 killed the people they thought they were, and they’ve been coping with that loss for two decades like everyone else. But everyone else at least has the comfort of a sympathetic ear if they need it — we don’t offer that same support to the cowards. They’re forced to go it alone.

And they shouldn’t have to anymore.

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