September 11, 1901

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born and a time to die: a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).

I have a large collection of antiquarian books in science, some with beautiful bindings and plates; others dating to the earliest days of printing in the late 15th century. But my most precious possession, the pearl beyond all price in my collection, cost 5 cents when a 13 year old immigrant, named Joseph Arthur Rosenberg and just off the boat from Hungary, bought it on October 25, 1901. This book, Studies in English Grammar, written by J.M. Greenwood and published in 1892, carries a small stamp identifying the place of purchase (when Brooklyn remained a separate city, not yet incorporated into New York): “Carroll’s book store. Old, rare and curious books. Fulton and Pearl Sts. Brooklyn.”

The arrival of Joseph Arthur Rosenberg, my maternal grandfather Papa Joe, began the history of my family in America. He came with his mother Leni, and two sisters (my aunts Regina and Gus) in steerage aboard the SS Kensington, sailing from Antwerp on August 31 with 60 passengers in first class and 1000 in steerage. The passenger manifest states that Leni arrived with $6.50 to start her new life in America. Papa Joe added one other bit of information to the date of purchase and his name, inscribed on the title page. He wrote, with maximal brevity in the most eloquent of all possible words: “I have landed. Sept. 11th 1901.”

I wanted to visit Ellis Island on September 11, 2001, to stand with my mother, his only surviving child, at his site of entry on my family’s centennial. My flight from Milan, scheduled to arrive in New York City at midday, landed in Halifax instead — as the great vista of old and new, the Statue of Liberty and adjacent Ellis Island, with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center hovering above, became a tomb for 6000 people, sacrificed to human evil on the 100th anniversary of one little lineage’s birth in America. A time to be born and, exactly a century later, a time to die.

Papa Joe, who possessed extraordinary artistic talents that remained undeveloped and underutilized, lived an ordinary life as a garment worker in New York City. He enjoyed periods of security and endured bouts of poverty; he and my grandmother raised four children, all imbued with the ordinary values that ennoble our species and nation: fairness, kindness, the need to persevere and rise by one’s own efforts. In the standard pattern, his generation struggled to solvency; my parents graduated from high school, fought a war, and moved into the middle classes; the third cohort achieved a university education, and some of us have enjoyed professional success.

Papa Joe’s story illuminates a beacon that will outshine, in the brightness of hope and goodness, the mad act of spectacular destruction that poisoned his centennial. But his story will prevail by its utter conventionality, not by any claim for unusual courage, pain or suffering. His story is the tale of nearly every American family, beginning with nothing as strangers in a strange land, and eventually prospering, often with delayed gratitude several generations later, by accumulated hard work, achieved in decency and fairness.

Especially in a technological age, when airplanes can become powerful bombs, rare acts of depravity seem to overwhelm our landscape, both geographical and psychological. But the ordinary human decency of a billion tiny acts of kindness, done by millions of good people, sets a counterweight, usually invisible for lack of comparable “news value,” that must prevail. The trickle of one family that began on September 11, 1901, multiplied by so many million similar and “ordinary” stories, will overwhelm the evil of a few on September 11, 2001.

I have stood at Ground Zero and contemplated the sublimity of the twisted wreckage of the largest human structure ever brought down in a catastrophic moment. And I recall the words that we all resented when we had to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 5th grade, but that seem so eloquent in their renewed relevance today. Our nation has not witnessed such a day of death since Gettysburg, and a few other battles of the Civil War, nearly 150 years ago: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

The third chapter of Ecclesiastes begins as quoted to open this piece, with contrasts of birth followed by death. But the next pair of statements then reverses the order to sound a theme of tough optimism. Verse three follows destruction with reconstruction: “A time to kill and a time to heal: a time to break down and a time to build up.” And verse four then extends the sequence from grim determination to eventual joy: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh: a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

My native city of New York, and the whole world, suffered grievously on September 11, 2001. But Papa Joe’s message of September 11, 1901, properly generalized across billions of people, will triumph through the agency of ordinary human decency. We have landed. Lady Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden door. And that door leads to the greatest, and largely successful, experiment in democracy ever attempted in human history, upheld by basic goodness across the broadest diversity of ethnicities, economies, geographies, languages, customs and employments that the world has ever known as a single nation. We fought our bloodiest war to keep our motto, e pluribus unum (one from many), as a vibrant reality. We will win now because ordinary humanity holds a triumphant edge of millions of good people over each evil psychopath. But we will only prevail if we mobilize this latent goodness into permanent vigilence and action. Verse seven epitomizes our necessary course of action at my Papa Joe’s centennial: “A time to rend, and at a time to sew: a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

Stephen Jay Gould

stevegouldAlexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Professor of Geology, and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University
Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology, New York University
Co-Director, Art Science Research Lab