The scene was my parents’ house on Fourth of July weekend. It was 10 months after Sept. 11. The tragedy was still on the minds of many, particularly during this time of patriotic reflection. Apparently, it was on the minds of some children as well.
My six-year-old niece, Jordan, was in the spare bedroom, doing crafts, putting together puzzles, drawing pictures. She was doing the sort of things she usually does — the kind of things expected of any little girl. But Sept. 11 had changed that.
“Grandma,” she innocently called to my mom, “come in and see what I drew.”
Her face was expressionless as my mom entered the room. My mom was stunned at what she saw.
Jordan had filled her usually happy chalkboard not with flowers, teddy bears and ballerinas, but instead a chilling illustration. On the left were two twin skyscrapers, sectioned into about 50 squares representing office windows. To the right was a doomed jet airplane darting straight toward the top of the building. A person was plummeting from the tower, about to splatter on the pavement. Underneath the airplane were two people on the ground with large tears falling from their faces. At the right was a giant figure, standing as high as the tower, crying. His extra large heart had a crack through it.
“That’s that Tuesday,” explained Jordan, remembering the exact day of the week, “when those bad people flew the airplane into the building. This is a person falling. These two people are on the ground crying; they’re sad. And this big person is God. He’s sad. His heart is broken.”
My mom waved in Jordan’s mother. “Are you upset?” asked her mother, upset. “Are you afraid?”
No, she replied tersely. She was just thinking about it.
“I think it’s just awful that a little girl like her is even thinking about something like that,” my mom later told me. “I was shocked by it. I still am.”
My parents have saved the chalkboard. It’s a powerful testimony to how the events of Sept. 11, 2001 have affected us.
There are many ways that Sept. 11 has impacted America — American politics, culture, foreign policy, military planning, even music, as anyone who listens to country music would know. But perhaps one of the most important influences — an ironically positive one — is the impact on moral thinking. It has at last enabled the vast majority of Americans to collectively agree and admit that there is evil in the world. That is no small achievement for our culture today. Thus, those terrorist attacks have afforded an added salutary purpose: they can help us attack a likewise evil, destructive enemy that has savaged our country from within for decades — moral relativism.
Moral relativism maintains that morality and truth are not absolute but relative to each individual. There is no single morality or truth, says the moral relativist, but many. What is right or wrong is determined by each individual.
Moral relativism explains where we are today. Many of our ills stem from it. One can hear it everywhere, at family reunions, in the workplace, behind the pulpit. It is so pervasive that it is almost unnoticeable. It’s simply what we believe.
One of its strongest outposts is the university. The college classroom is the locus from which so many young people have absorbed this easy belief system, which appears so tolerant and nonjudgmental. Students who may learn nothing else seem to quickly pick up and embrace this thinking. They take it into the world, bringing it into the workforce, integrating it into what they do and say and watch and read, expressing it in their voting preferences.
What’s so frustrating about this enemy is that it’s actually easy to defeat. The key is to understand that it’s toothless and why. Indeed, the millions who daily invoke relativism don’t actually believe it. There are a lot of ways to demonstrate this.
For instance, it’s not hard to corner a relativist professor. Most are liberals. One can merely choose certain hot-button issues that liberals undoubtedly believe to be wrong. A student can ask the professor if it was wrong for the Taliban to deny women the right to an education or to leave the home without a male guide; if forced female circumcision is wrong; if rape is wrong; if racism is wrong; if it’s OK to use derogatory epithets against blacks or homosexuals; if it’s okay to beat a homosexual or tie him to a truck and drag him simply because he is gay. Most moral relativists who insist there are no absolutes will absolutely declare that all of these are in fact morally absolutely wrong.
Here is where Sept. 11 helps, especially for students and young people generally. An obvious example of an accepted absolute has fallen on their laps and remains on their minds. When their professor declares there is no absolute evil or wrong, a student can hastily chime in: How about when the terrorists crashed those airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings and murder all those innocent civilians’
Any professor who asserts that act was not wrong or not necessarily wrong or not wrong to him or is debatable among reasonable people, is exposed to all as a moral idiot with a monstrous belief system.
Though I’m picking on professors, this can be applied to the culture generally. Hollywood and the major media have embraced moral relativism every bit as tightly as the university.
This brings me back to my niece, six-year-old Jordan.
I found it telling that when she described her picture, how she viewed Sept. 11, she fingered the perpetrators as those bad people, emphasizing the word bad.
It is said in the Book of Genesis that we know the difference between good and evil. It’s one of the first, if not the first, moral distinctions — great lessons of life — we’re given.
Jordan, a child, knew the difference. She could tell. She saw the barbarism on her TV screen. No matter what some effete professor may try to tell her otherwise some day, or regardless of what NBC’s sitcoms instruct her during the “family hour” of nightly programming, she knows wrong exists. She knows evil exists. That moment on Sept. 11 indelibly carved an example into her little consciousness. A 50-year-old with an Ivy League doctorate may grapple with the moral justification of that act of iniquity on that Tuesday, but she won’t.
As much as it’s horrible that she would be thinking about that tragedy in a quiet moment alone when she’d otherwise be drawing something pretty, Sept. 11 has ironically bequeathed a helpful legacy to her and countless other American youth who will be reared in moral ambiguity. In an unforgettable way, they’ve been taught the indisputable fact that absolute evil and wrong exist, no matter how much their culture tells them to the contrary. Don’t underestimate the importance of that gift.