Politically Incorrect, Heroic All the Same

Sooner or later, someone was going to say what New York firefighter Michael Moran said onstage at the benefit concert for New York on Oct. 20. He had lost his older brother, who was a battalion chief, and 12 fellow firefighters from his own Ladder 3 company at the World Trade Center. He was enjoying his first night out after weeks of hard work and dozens of funerals.

As a cable-television audience of millions watched, Mr. Moran took the microphone and roared, “In the spirit of the Irish people, Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass!” A politically incorrect pandemonium ensued. Therefore, The New York Times simply did not report it, even though the newspaper covered the concert.

Now that American soldiers are in harm’s way in Afghanistan, we should not forget what unarmed civilians like Mr. Moran and his brotherhood have taught us about how to risk life against death-embracing terrorists. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t correct. Therefore, let’s report it and look at it.

Most Americans sense that this country’s answer to the blood-thick bondings of terrorist groups depends on finding something just as potent in ourselves. We know that we saw it on Sept. 11, in the firefighters and others who proved as willing as suicide bombers to run toward death-but in order to save lives, not end them. Their sacrifice prompted humbling, sometimes surprising stirrings of patriotism in many of us.

What it didn’t prompt was much public reflection about where such feelings come from. How does a liberal civic culture with a wide diversity of beliefs and racial and ethnic groups find its capacity for supreme sacrifice against enemies like those we face now? How do we manage to sustain the loyalties and virtues that are largely ignored by both diversity advocates and corporate management consultants?

Mr. Moran’s manifesto offered an answer some don’t want to hear: Most of the uniformed public servants who gave their lives were bound into a brotherhood that affronts civil-rights activists. At least 80 percent of New York’s firefighters are white, Roman Catholic men like Mr. Moran, members of an intergenerational, “father-son” union often condemned as racially and sexually exclusive.

Adding irony to impropriety, the Maltese Cross on every firefighter’s shoulder patch and cap is a relic of a holy war with Islam. The cross was the emblem of the Knights of St. John, 11th-century Crusaders who, according to the New York Fire Department’s official history, were assailed by Muslim Saracen warriors with bombs containing the flammable naptha, then with flaming torches. Hundreds “risked their lives to save their brothers-in-arms from painful, fiery deaths.”

A myth, of course-but review the past six weeks and respect the power of myths. As with Mr. Moran’s moment at the Garden, myths elevate dark passions and play them out. Sept. 11 reminded us that we have to build myths into young people’s rites of passage, channeling them toward ends better than those imagined by desperate loners in Afghanistan, Columbine High School or the South Bronx. If we don’t do that, sentiments far uglier than Michael Moran’s start running deep and gathering force, in inner-city gangs, in white militias, even in certain Manhattan clubs.

Liberal-capitalist democracies are notoriously neglectful or openly disdainful of the need for coherent myths. Not only apostles of multiculturalism but also managers of corporate and public bureaucracies share that disdain.

Take multiculturalism first-as Mr. Moran did, after a fashion. Some firefighters do believe that their blood-thick ties couldn’t be sustained without the racial, ethnic and sexual solidarity that fired Mr. Moran’s manifesto. Are they wrong? From athletic teams to the Army, we’ve seen more than enough collective courage and loyalty to know that these virtues can be shared and strengthened across lines of race and sex, even if not overnight at the stroke of a judge’s pen. It takes time and a carefully nourished cultural change.

What is far less clear is whether the virtues that drove the heroes of Sept. 11 are nourished equally well by the Wall Street and management cultures of those they tried to save-cultures that reward self-marketing over fidelity and adaptability over courage. Years ago, a study by the Rand Corporation found New York firefighters governed by work rules that made them a medieval guild by today’s management standards. Their loyalties to one another and their mission are too strong for modern managers as well as diversity consultants.

And so, for better or worse, the sacrifices of old-boy networks like the one that bound Michael Moran to his lost blood brother and his brotherhood in Ladder 3 remain America’s strongest answer to the Taliban’s declaration that their people love death as we love life. We have shown them that we do love life, enough to risk death to save it. But the reasons run deeper than either social activists or corporate managers think.

Terry Golway will return to this space next week.

Politically Incorrect, Heroic All the Same