about September 11: I originally wrote this tribute to Abe Zelmanowitz,
who died at the World Trade Center, for SOLO
, a site for Objectivists -- that
is, people who agree with the essentials of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I
offer it here again, in remembrance of all the innocent people who died
that terrible day, their families, friends and loved ones, the wonderful
firefighters, emergency workers, and police who acted with such bravery
and dedication -- and for all those who are willing to fight for the
best of American values: freedom, the dignity and infinite worth of the
individual, and -- when necessary -- the right to defend ourselves
against those who would destroy all those values that make a truly
way of life worth living.
A FRIEND…TO VALUES
Certain stories, almost mythic in nature, connect to our deepest
values. For this reason, our response to them reveals our sense of life
in a manner that most other events do not. I know that many people who
identify themselves as Objectivists, to one degree or another, may not
understand why I view the following story -- a true one -- as inspiring,
and profoundly moving.
Abe Zelmanowitz was an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, New York, who
worked in the World Trade Center. Although he died in the terrorist
attack on September 11, 2001, his remains were only recently identified.
He was just buried in Jerusalem. Mr. Zelmanowitz worked on the 27th
floor of 1 World Trade Center, the second tower to collapse -- which
means that he probably could have lived, had he chosen to leave the
burning building. But he didn’t. Instead, he stayed behind to remain
with a paraplegic colleague, who was also his friend. He even urged his
friend’s full-time nurse to save herself, while he himself chose to
comfort, and protect, his friend with his continued presence.
At Mr. Zelmanowitz’s funeral, the story was told that, a few days
before the attack, he attended a Sabbath lesson. The rabbi talked about
sacrificing oneself for the love of God. Mr. Zelmanowitz asked the rabbi
how a simple man, like him, could show his love of God. Apparently, he
was not satisfied with the answer, for he asked the same question a few
more times. He remained dissatisfied with the answers he received. As
the person telling this story commented: “A few days later, he got the
reply.” In a tribute, one of Mr. Zelmanowitz’s relatives said: “Our
Uncle Avremel was…thrown into a fiery furnace, but his supreme act
proclaimed to the world, that his God was a God of kindness, and he
would not forsake Him. He gave his life in a totally selfless way to
help another person, and sanctified the Name of God before all
Yes, I did indeed say that I view this story as inspiring and moving.
I wish I had known Mr. Zelmanowitz. If I believed in God, and could pray
to Him, I would pray to Him for this extraordinarily good, and strong,
man. I wish only the best for his family and friends, and I wish most of
all that these words somehow could comfort them, insufficient as they
are for the task.
I say the following with all due respect to Mr.
Zelmanowitz and his family: I don’t care that Mr. Zelmanowitz himself
might have viewed his act as a “selfless” one, one that he undertook to
show his love of God. I don’t care that he may have thought he stayed
with his friend in an act of “selfless” caring for another person.
People often say things that do not accurately reflect what their
actions communicate. And what do Mr. Zelmanowitz’s actions communicate?
One thing, above all: his loyalty to his values and, more particularly,
his loyalty to his friend and colleague, who could not fend for himself,
and who would have been alone if Mr. Zelmanowitz had left him in that
building. Alone -- in what undoubtedly were the most terrifying
moments of his life.
We do not know, and we will never know, if those two men knew they
were about to die. But surely they knew they were in great, perilous
danger. Think of the story in the alternative: your friend’s nurse has
left, to save herself. And then you leave, and live. And for the rest of
your days, you are tortured by the memory of what those last minutes
must have been like for your friend, unable to try to save himself, and
doomed to a horrifying death as 1 World Trade Center collapsed -- and
alone. And you ask yourself: in the moments when it mattered most, what
was my friendship worth? What, in the end, were my friend, and whatever
comfort I could give him, worth to me? I chose my physical survival over
the solace my presence might have provided my friend -- the knowledge
that another human being cared enough about him to remain behind, in the
fading hope that rescue might still arrive, the knowledge that he
mattered so much that I, his friend, would risk my own life to stay with
Would I judge someone negatively for having left the building, and
saving his own life? Of course not; it was an extraordinary emergency,
and the normal rules don’t apply. In such a situation, I would be
hesitant to judge any response a person might have. But I do think this:
Mr. Zelmanowitz’s act was not a selfless one. It was the most properly
selfish act imaginable. By his actions, Mr. Zelmanowitz declared: these
are my values, this is my friend, and I will not desert
him in his, and my, hour of greatest need. When it truly matters, even
if no one -- or only God -- knows what I do, I will try to live up to my
own highest ideals, and I will offer my friendship, my companionship, my
caring, and my protection to my friend. And that is how much I love
myself, that I will do this, even when I know how high the price might
be, and that it might be the highest price of all.
Of course, I do not know any of the details of the rest of Mr.
Zelmanowitz’s life. I do not know how he treated his family, or his
other friends, or whether he did his job well or poorly. Am I reading
too much into the details of this news story? Perhaps. But on the basis
of those details that are available about what Mr. Zelmanowitz did in
the final minutes of his life -- and why he took the actions he did -- I
feel confident in saying that, in those minutes, he was a truly noble
man, a man who acted out of the most profound loyalty to the values he
I would have liked to have been friends with Abe Zelmanowitz. It
would have been an honor.