Yet the vital role played by romantic ideals is there all the same, no matter the consequences. As Chesterton reminds us, "for the man of action, there is nothing but idealism," and for the heroes of 9/11, nothing could be more profoundly true. Each one of them, overwhelmed by the chaos and suffering of that day, was moved by a profound willingness to live or die "not for themselves but for another." Faced with the choice of escaping the terrifying reality around them or entering more deeply into it for the sake of their fellow sufferers, they chose selflessness with a vigor and strength so far beyond the ordinary it takes one's breath away at the very thought.
The humanity of those brave men and women—living and dead alike—is not a symbol of failure or a sign of our lost idealism. It is, instead, a reminder to each and every one of us that we selfish, fallen humans are capable of reaching far beyond ourselves, capable of looking past our own selfish interests and desires to the good of another. It is, in a small way, a participation in the profound sacrifice of Christ, who gave Himself up willingly for the sake of all mankind.
What could possibly be more idealistic—or more real—than that?