Another Perspective

Honor As An Entitlement

Some more thoughts on United 93 by the author of Honor: A History....

By 5.17.06

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Some more thoughts on United 93 by the author of Honor: A History....

Here, at greater length, is David Thomson's argument in the New York Times, mentioned in my review of United 93:

The stress on false heroics has been reduced. Why? In part, because Mr. Greengrass has lived much of his life with the hideous local hatreds of Ireland, and he is weary of "good clean action" films....At the same time, this is not actually as "dangerous" a film as you might think. This is a picture about American courage and enterprise. It need not be a training film, but it is about the way we all might hope to behave. It is a rousing affirmation of a war effort, not very different from, say, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), which reveled in the Doolittle "gotcha" after Pearl Harbor. Similarly, the big American movie on the Holocaust waited on our discovery of Oskar Schindler -- our way of making films requires heroes, even if sometimes a hero is like poison in the muddied water....The really difficult film to make or offer in America will be the one that says no, the world did not alter its nature on 9/11, even if the worst politicians used that event to switch their reality. But on 9/11, we faced the first need to ask ourselves how other people -- evil, alien, insane -- could be so brave. The history of terrorism -- and it includes the independence of this country -- is that in the end you have to understand the grievance of the aggrieved, whether you agree with it or not. That film has still to come.

In other words, heroes are bad because they prevent us from understanding the grievances of the other side, and it's not understanding their grievances that causes them to attack us in the first place. But there are several assumptions here that I think unwarranted. In an honor culture, such as that out of which the terrorists arise, the honor-seekers don't care if you understand them or not. In fact, they're likely to look at you with even more contempt if you do. That's because they seek honor and not better policy choices. Obviously, they would regard it as a victory if America were to abandon its support for Israel, for example, but abandoning our support for Israel would make no difference to their enmity to us and all that we stand for, including our religious freedom, our freedom of speech, and our belief in women's rights. Are we going to give these things up too in a vain effort to "understand" and placate them? Thomson's is a typical liberal response to aggression, but he does not see that it is now outdated. For the world did change on 9/11: it changed because it was suddenly faced with incontrovertible, unignorable evidence that the West was faced with an enemy whom it was pointless to try to understand -- or rather, for whom all the understanding in the world would make no difference to its enmity. It is this reality to which Thomson, like many others in and of Hollywood, determinedly closes his eyes.

WE KNOW THE REASON FOR Mr. Greengrass's "tact" in choosing to play down the heroes' roles. He needed the cooperation of the families of the victims of Flight 93 and they didn't want anyone singled out for his heroism. This appears to be what Desson Thomson in his interview with Mr. Greengrass in the Washington Post himself tactfully refers to as the director's promise to the families that "he'd find a softer, gentler truth." Others, too, have noted the families' role in downplaying the individual heroism of Beamer and the others. Jere Longman, whose book about the incident, Among the Heroes, came out a year after 9/11, has written that "the families resisted early attempts by politicians to honor only these four. There was concern that bravery aboard United Airlines Flight 93 not be made into a kind of Olympic sport, where some passengers received a gold medal for gallantry while others had to settle for silver or bronze."

One such attempt was a resolution proposed in the Pennsylvania legislature which originally honored the four heroes but then was reworded to honor all the passengers equally. "We feel we have forty heroes, and not just four," the coordinator of Pennsylvania's September 11 victim-assistance program told Peter Perl of the Post at the time. "A lot of the families feel that way." Indeed they do! Mr. Longman details an incident at a meeting of the families with Mr. Greengrass in San Francisco last year at which Mark Bingham's mother had said that "they were not all heroes. To insist on such...does a disservice to their memory and the truth." At this, he says, "two or three people grew so angered that they left the room."

If Mr. Greengrass is sensitive to the victims' idea that, when any are honored, all must be honored -- and its corollary that not to be honored is somehow to be dishonored -- where do such a strange ideas come from? I think they arise out of America's prevailing educational philosophy, which is founded on the promotion of self-esteem, or honor as an entitlement. But that philosophy has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the destruction of America's honor-culture, which would once have taught us that the reward of virtue (as Aristotle described honor) could not be distributed indiscriminately without losing all meaning. Self-esteem is what has replaced honor in what the Islamic scholar Akbar S. Ahmed calls our "post-honor society." For America is not alone in dishonoring honor. The Western honor culture, which reached a summit with the neo-chivalric Romanticism of the Victorians, was widely seen as having been discredited at the time of, and partly as a result of, World War I.

Since then, its remains have been further denigrated by feminist, pacifist, and psychotherapeutic tendencies in the successor culture to the point where ordinary people hardly even know what the word means anymore. That was certainly not true of the hijackers on board flight 93 and the other planes that went down on the same day. They and the jihadists who have come after them all have had a very clear and unbending sense of honor, born of an Islamic honor culture which never went through the evolutionary processes that made the Western one so distinctive. Could it be that even to understand, let alone to fight back against these honor-crazed fanatics, we might need to re-imagine an honor culture of our own?

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.