September 11th Was Not a Tragedy

September 11th Was Not a Tragedy September 11, 2011

Everybody else will probably be asking “Where were you?” so I’ve decided I’ll do something a little different for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Anybody who knows me knows that I have a passion for language—specifically, its proper use. One of the things that I absolutely cannot stand is when people use the word “tragedy” for something that is not a tragedy. Let me explain.
A 4-year-old dies of leukemia. A young mother is paralyzed in a car accident. A teenager mistakenly runs over his little sister with the family van. These are tragedies.

Murder is not a tragedy. When I see people refer to something like, say, abortion as a “tragedy,” I have an overwhelming urge to say “What a lot of crud.” Abortion is a deliberate act of evil. It is not something terrible that just “happened,” through illness, accident, or what have you.
The same is true of the September 11th attacks. I am sure all of you have seen them described as a “tragedy” many times, in many places. I even saw Peggy Noonan doing this the other day. But were they a tragedy? No. The planes didn’t fly into the buildings because their engines malfunctioned. The pilots didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. They were Muslim terrorists who knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going, and they coldly chose to murder thousands of innocent lives as an act of war against the country they hate so much. The correct word here is “murder.” Not “tragedy.”
I would be willing to bet that there are many Americans who, when they stopped to think it through, would agree with me. But why are so many lapsing into this sloppy, mistaken use of the word “tragedy” in the first place? I think perhaps it’s because with the rise of relativism, our society has developed an instinctive shying away from words like “evil” and “murder.” So replacement words like “tragedy” have become so widespread that people use them unthinkingly, even when they really mean “murder.” (In this specific case, another factor is that people are timid about directly ascribing evil to minority groups like Muslims, and the worse a minority behaves, the more excuses are made for them. Unfortunate, but true.)
My challenge to you, my fellow Christians, is this:  Be clear, precise, and unflinching in your condemnation of evil actions, be they aborting a child or flying a plane into the World Trade Center. Let us call them what they are: not “tragic,” but “evil.”
By the way, if you are looking for something profound and inspiring to read today, this piece should fit the bill more than adequately.

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  • While the act itself may not have been a tragedy by definition, I wouldn’t recommend telling this to the families of those lost on this day. Those losses were tragic.

  • Again, I’m not so sure that’s the right way to think about it. The mother of the little girl with leukemia has suffered a tragic loss. The girl was “lost” through illness. But the 9/11 victims were “lost” through murder. So I would say the families suffered a horrible loss, a terrible loss, an evil loss. But “tragic,” again, feels wrong.

  • JSR

    Tragedy: A lamentable, fatal, or dreadful event. Calamity or disaster. ( Android App)
    Tragedy seems like a pretty accurate description to me. While I understand your point its not a fight worth fighting. Especially not today.

  • Here’s the problem: When we say that something is “terrible,” or “tragic,” and we leave it at that by itself, by conversational implicature we are implying that’s all it is. I’m not denying that 9/11 was terrible. But it was so much more than that. So many things are “terrible” and “disastrous.” Floods and hurricanes are also terrible and disastrous. 9/11 is on a different level. It deserves a less vague and generic description. Admit it or not, people do use “tragedy” because it’s more convenient than “evil” or “murder.” You claim this isn’t a fight worth fighting, but I contend that it is, and especially today.

  • Lydia McGrew

    “Especially not today.” Actually, _especially_ today it is a point worth fighting for. Because _especially_ today we should be remembering what really happened, the evil of the evildoers, not papering it over with euphemisms.

  • JSR

    Nobody here ever denied the tragedy was caused by 19 murderous, evil scum who were motivated by a false religious ideas. The conversation was started by someone implying we shouldn’t call it a tragedy.

  • But why call it a tragedy when we could call it an evil act of jihad by 19 murderous, evil scum? My main point was that we shouldn’t call the event as a whole “tragic” and think that’s somehow sufficient to cover it. When that’s exactly what many people do. “The 9/11 tragedies.” “The tragedy of 9/11.” It’s imprecise. To give an example: Today my family and I went to Cracker Barrel for lunch. Now if I were to tell a friend, “I went to Cracker Barrel for lunch today,” that would be, strictly literally, true. But the implication is that I was the only one eating lunch at Cracker Barrel. Calling 9/11 a “tragedy” is similar. Strictly literally, one could say it may be true as far as it goes, but it’s extremely vague and misleading to leave it at that. The truth is, even though you or I wouldn’t deny that it was a murderous act carried out by vicious scum, there are plenty of people who would, and would make excuses for the attackers. Instead of contributing to the fuzziness, we should be marking out where we stand as precisely as possible.

  • JSR

    I understand your point, and agree to some extent. I just think you’re picking the wrong day to make a controversial point. The people who lost family on 9/11 probably agree that it was an act of jihad by murderers, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a tragedy in their lives. I believe a tragedy is a tragedy, regardless of the source or reason behind the tragedy.
    As far as calling things as they really are, the scores of dead terrorists and the recent killing of their leader tends to make it clear how we feel, no matter what we say.
    Bottom line, may God bless America and help the leaders of the land that we may live a quite and peaceable life in all Godliness.

  • I think you may be unaware just how bad the excuse-making has gotten and how tangible its results are. Consider, for example, the fact that security measures have been ridiculously tightened, almost to the point of making our country a police state, yet any kind of Muslim profiling is strictly avoided. Because that would be discrimination, after all. No, if anything, we’re supposed to treat “our Muslim brothers” with even MORE sensitivity now than before. It’s pretty much to the point where Muslims living in America can make any demand they like, however outrageous, and anybody who doesn’t immediately rush to accommodate them is in trouble.

  • JSR

    Agree. But that has nothing to do with 9/11 being a tragedy.
    You’re making great points, it just seems your original post came across wrong. Being frustrated about the sensitivites to Muslims is no reason to be insensitive to those who experienced a tragedy.

  • I was responding to your claim that America/Americans “really feel” a certain way towards Muslims despite what may have been said. I was pointing out that actually, there are many people who take quite seriously the idea that we have to give them more deference now than ever.
    Quite the contrary, my post was not designed to be insensitive at all. You’re trying to argue that by saying what I said, I was somehow trying to brush off the significance and magnitude of what the victims’ families suffered, when I was actually saying that others were not referring to it with ENOUGH weight and magnitude.

  • JSR

    Fair enough.
    This is reminding me of your post with the cartoon the other day. I’ve sitting here trying to review my notes for the message I have for the youth group tonight and I can’t focus because I’m arguing with a total stranger. Maybe I should go study humility 🙂

  • Are you implying that I’m wrong? 😮 😆
    Maybe you should just go study your notes. 🙂

  • JSR

    No implication intended.
    I will go study.
    Thanks for your stand. America could use more like you.

  • I will take that as a high compliment. Thank you.

  • Lydia McGrew

    If a loved one of mine had been killed on 9/11, I wouldn’t find this post insensitive in the least. Similarly, if (God forbid) a loved one of mine were individually murdered by a kidnapper (for example), some annoying newspaper story called it “a tragedy,” and then someone wrote a blog post saying, “It wasn’t a tragedy. It was an atrocity.” I would view that person as being “on my side” and telling it “from my perspective” in the best way possible–by keeping the moral compass and the desire for justice in view.
    (And by the way: Hurray! Osama bin Laden has been killed by the soldiers of the country he attacked!)

  • Yay. Pass the wine… or, uh, whatever we’re drinking in celebration. 😀

  • AmyH

    I was fully prepared to disagree with you until I got to Lydia’s comment.
    You didn’t give us a subject. Was I supposed to say, “What a mass murder. What an evil.” Come on, that’s just not right. However, “What an atrocity” at least describes it somewhat.
    I still can’t come completely on board with it, though. I don’t think any of those substitutes acknowledge the complete wreck and destruction of so many lives surrounding the victims. I believe it was indeed a tragedy, and that’s supported by the definition someone cited earlier. What went through my mind as I was reading was a man who attended a church movement vaguely connected with mine up till a couple of weeks ago. (His wife was also the granddaughter of a mentor in my mom’s teaching career some 30-40 years ago, and my mom had her daughter in kindergarten or so.) He went to camp meeting and professed to pray through and be reclaimed. Then a week or two later, he murdered his wife. Now that was evil; it was an atrocity; it was outside the pale of humanity. But if you were around for the aftermath (four motherless children, bereaved parents and grandparents, his bereaved parents, friends unable to grasp what happened, a human soul(s) (his and likely hers) probably doomed for hell), I don’t see how you can avoid also recognizing it as a tragedy. It certainly felt tragic.

  • That’s kind of illogical. Either it’s the right idea or it isn’t, so whether or not it feels comfortable when you say it shouldn’t make a difference. But okay.
    This is another article along the same lines from a Jewish perspective:

  • Lydia McGrew

    Perhaps it would be useful if we spoke of the tragic consequences of an atrocity. That way we’re separating the _act_ (which was an atrocity, a murder) from the things that happen as a result–e.g., the motherless children.
    One of the reasons it can be important to keep speaking of atrocities as such rather than as tragedies is because it keeps our response from degenerating into a mere swamp of emotion. Consider the prosecutors, for example, in the case of the individual murder. They have to find the murderer (if he’s fled), gather evidence against him, bring him to trial, and try to get a conviction and some sort of just punishing sentence. Sitting around and crying about how sad it all is isn’t going to get that done.
    Something similar is true of society as a whole and 9/11. There is something worrisome about the fact that unending mourning and talk about the tragic consequences seems to constitute our only response. It’s not that mourning is wrong in itself but that if that’s the entire _national_ response it ends up meaning that we have a greatly lessened resolve to resist the evil that brought this upon us in practical ways. It’s just sadness, sadness, sadness all the way, and maybe some generic patriotism, but that’s it.
    As a side note, I’ve read (but haven’t verified by my own research) that the nation’s response to the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did not have this characteristic of unending national weeping and wailing and making ourselves out to be nothing but victims.

  • Well, I mean, the actual definition (the one not dealing with the literary definition) is “An event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.” 9/11 was most definitely a tragedy.
    Do we stop there? No. But it was a tragedy. There is nothing in the definition to suggest that tragedy only means things that happen by accident.

  • Well historically that makes sense. WWII was already in full flight when December 7 hit, just not from our end yet. Roosevelt had been champing at the bit for a while anyway. So that was like “Okay, that’s it, we’re joining the war.” There was a more immediately obvious path to action then.
    I think the response of one of the firemen who was there says it best. He was a rookie at the time, a really young guy. After 9/11 he said “I want to save lives. I don’t enjoy taking lives. But I think now if I was told to go and kill [join the army], I would.”