Remembering Noel

I recently visited the new but still unfinished  9/11 Memorial in New York City to remember Noel Foster, my former student and Moravian College graduate who was killed at Ground Zero.

The site itself is dominated by twin reflecting pools, each almost an acre in size, set in the footprints where the Twin Towers stood. Thirty foot waterfalls spill into the pools before disappearing into a seemingly bottomless center vortex. After a brief search I located Noel’s name among the almost 3,000 others inscribed on the 77 bronze panels attached to the parapet walls surrounding the pools.

Noel worked on the 99th floor of 2 World Trade Center (South Tower) and when other occupants began exiting the building to safety, he remained behind to aid others, including a friend with a broken leg attempting to descend the stairs. Witnesses reported seeing Noel on the 65th floor and finally on the 40th floor, still attending to the injured man. When the building collapsed, he paid the price for his heroic humanity and epitomized the ultimate Good Samaritan.

A faded color photo affixed to a cork board wall in my office and dated April, 1980, shows a smiling Noel with a group of politically active students. Not long after, he met with our college president in an effort to divest Moravian’s endowment funds from companies supporting apartheid in South Africa. My sense is that an estimable moral consistency existed between the 20-year-old student whose empathic feelings for oppressed people abroad and the 40-year-old man who unhesitatingly placed his own life in peril on September 11th. 

That’s the Noel Foster I recalled as I walked around the memorial site.I was also prompted to wonder whether it’s now possible for Americans to simultaneously grapple with two basic truths. The first, of course, is that the 9/11 attack was an unconscionable crime against humanity. The second, and more difficult, involves answering the question posed by the late legendary historian Howard Zinn: “In what ways has American foreign policy inflamed and antagonized people all over the world to the point of creating terrorists?” 

The answer won’t be found on the 9/11 official online FAQ site which suggests the WTC was targeted because it symbolized U.S. power, globalization, economic might and prosperity. That response begs the question and avoids mentioning that decades of barbarous U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, motivated the hijackers to commit their heinous acts.

Bearing that in mind, I happened to visit the Memorial on our nation’s Martin Luther King holiday and I doubted that Dr. King would have been surprised by what occurred on September 11, 2001.

In his speech at Manhattan’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 (only a twenty minute drive from where I stood) King lamented that his own government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” adding that the ongoing Vietnam war was only part of a U.S. “pattern of suppression” around the globe. King also solemnly and presciently warned of the likely consequences, what’s now termed “blowback,” including the physical and mental toll on U.S. troops tasked with brutally maintaining the American empire.

I recalled reading that young veteran’s suicides spiked 44% from 2009 to 20011 and currently 22 vets commit suicide every day.

As I walked north from Lower Manhattan, my lingering sadness was once again joined by another competing emotion — anger at the complicity of Washington policy makers whose global behavior placed Noel in harm’s way.

In 2014, have we learned that these policies continue unabated and cause festering  resentment in the wake of official state violence emanating from terrorists in business suits.

Our government has absolutely no interest in informing the public about any of this all important larger context.

That self-education requires Americans to engage in some fearless, independent, and scrupulous soul searching – and then act on that knowledge.

Accepting that responsibility might be the most appropriate 9/11 tribute to Noel and all the others.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., is a member of the Political Science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His latest  book is EMPATHY IMPERILED: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2013). Contact: olsong@moravian.edu

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