Acts of Kindness: What Human Beings Do

Hs name is Louis, that’s all I know.

That and the fact that he works for Morgan Stanley, the giant financial concern which had a total of 3,500 employees in its offices in both towers of the World Trade Center.

That, and, finally, the fact that Louis, whoever he is, whatever his last name, is one of our heroes, to use a word that I’d long felt was overworked—until September 11. That day and in the days following we’ve been given, at a tragic cost, a multi-faceted display of what heroism is.

I don’t know Louis’ last name because the co-worker who told the New York Times of Louis’ heroism didn’t know his last name, either. She just knows that in all likelihood he saved her life.

As the woman told the Times, she, able to walk only with crutches, was in the Morgan Stanley offices on the 64th floor of Tower 2 when the first jetliner hit Tower 1 and company officials ordered an evacuation.

At first, several employees sought to carry the woman down the stairwell. “It was incredibly difficult,” the woman said. “They had me over their shoulder for 5 or 10 flights and just couldn’t do it.”

That’s when Louis saw the group. He lifted the woman to his shoulder and began to carry her by himself down the hot, humid stairwell. The woman said that at about the 20th or 15th floor, a security guard, saying the danger at that level had eased, urged Louis to leave the woman and continue on his own. But Louis refused and carried her all the way out of the building, “all the way,” the woman said, “to the E.M.T. guys, and he stuck with me until we got one who said I could go in an ambulance.”

Louis then left, heading north, we hope, out of danger. We know nothing more about him.

This story, of course, is only one of the many acts of quiet heroism and kindness that occurred that day and in the days since.

We always express surprise at these acts, as if they’re unusual.

But we should realize they’re not unusual. In fact, they’re a common thread running through the tragedies we’ve witnessed in recent years—in the aftermath of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, among other places.

We should realize that these acts of kindness, of compassion, of decency, both during and after the terror are what decent human beings do, no matter who they are, no matter where they live, no matter what despicable acts have been waged against them, no matter what danger they might be putting themselves in.

These acts of kindness are the balm to the deep wound in our individual and collective psyches. They are the actions which allow us to immerse ourselves in a profound sadness and shock, to grieve over the fate of the innocent and yet simultaneously, by those actions, declare that we—the community of decent human beings—are determined to persevere.

All the stories we’ve heard: Of the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, hijacked after taking off from Newark for San Francisco, knowing that they themselves were doomed, acting to save Americans on the ground. Of shopkeepers in New York passing out bottles of water that day to the flood of refugees streaming north from the war zone. Of the Americans flocking to New York City to volunteer to help in any way possible. Of the estimated nearly 2 million Americans who have given blood thus far. Of the millions across the globe who’ve expressed their sorrow in one way or another.

All these are the stuff of human kindness.

They remind us that kindness is human nature. They show us, again, that kindness and compassion, especially in the face of an almost unfathomable inhumanity, is the most powerful rebuke to those who seek to intimidate and destroy us.

Every one of these acts of kindness is a declaration that we intend to maintain our sense of compassion and decency toward others. It declares that we realize those qualities define us individually as a human being and make us—whether we live in New York City or Washington, D.C. or on the other side of the world—a community.

Mary McAleese, president of Ireland, said, “This is a crime against the foundations of our common humanity. Our response must be to stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Amid our great sorrow, we should all realize how wonderful it is that millions of people across the globe don’t need a world leader to tell them that.

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