Less than a month ago, almost 1,000 Americans were at Cowes, England, to participate in the America's Cup Jubilee. Like a big gathering in any healthy activity, the 150th birthday of the first race for the America’s Cup was suffused with joy, friendship, love of tradition, and optimism for a world even better than the one that we were celebrating. The central event was the 53-mile race around the Isle of Wight that duplicated the contest in which the yacht America
won the famous trophy that has gone on to be yachting’s equivalent of the World Series. In the most sublime day on the water that I have ever had, 205 boats built between 1885 and almost yesterday sailed in a perfect wind, warm air, and pristine visibility. I recall telling myself that this was like a fine September day off New York.
One of my shipmates in the 50-foot ketch Snow Lion
was a new friend, Bennett Fisher, a banker from Greenwich. In the early going of the Around the Island Race, we enjoyed one of the most intimate relationships that can be had in a racing sailboat, he trimming the main sheet and I steering, and—like a catcher and a pitcher—working together moment-to-moment to bring about the best possible performance. The intimacy continued ashore. In the small apartment that we shared, my wife, Leah, and I formed a close bond with Ben and his wife, Susan, and another delightful couple, Terry and Peggy Thatcher. I have heard of a rule of thumb that when people reach their 50s they cease forging close friendships. We broke that rule at Cowes, and we returned from England looking forward to many years of pleasure with these new friends.
Three weeks to the day after the Around Island Race, on one of those perfect New York September days, Ben Fisher—my thoughtful, funny, utterly reliable new friend—was working in an upper floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower when the North Tower was hit by suicide terrorists in a jetliner. He got out of his office on the 97th floor before it was destroyed by the second plane, and was last seen helping others escape the horror in a stairwell on the 44th floor, and there he disappeared.
Ben, of course, was only one of thousands crushed or burned to death on that beautiful but terrible morning. As I talk with families, friends, and acquaintances, I find that I am hardly alone in being caught in the wild sea of loss rippling out from Ground Zero. A woman in New York knew 11 victims, including three brothers who were firemen. One of my daughters in law knows a young couple in Boston who, between them, had eight friends and business associates on one of the passenger airplanes that unholy conviction converted into guided missiles.
During these miserable days, as I look for a shield to protect me from the despair’s falling debris, I find my heart and mind racing through the whole realm of emotions. There is the weeping helplessness that sweeps through every few hours. And there is a ferocious wish that my country, working with the same chilly efficiency with which the terrorists converted the mission of those planes, will transform itself from a peaceful democracy into a militaristic state that will inflict a bloody vengeance upon the people behind the horror. In these swings of mood, I have found it worthwhile to test them against my core beliefs and ideals. Many are religious, some are patriotic. Among them also are ideals that, while they have not built nations or cathedrals, have produced admirable institutions and events that have brought pleasure and meaning to the lives of many over tens of decades. If we are to act with integrity as civilized people and as Americans, we should remember and honor those ideals as guides as we pursue the justice we all want.
While sports are not the most important of those institutions, they are not the least, either. In our athletic pastimes we develop character, make friends, set and achieve goals, endure the pain of loss, and wrestle with the painful arrogance that sometimes conquers our better instincts when we win.
Fresh in my mind this week is the sporting event that brought those three couples together in August. This is the competition for the America's Cup, the oldest international sports event. It was founded a century and a half ago by a prince, a lord, and some American businessmen, all of them idealists with a strong yet realistic vision for better world. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, sponsored the world’s fair that brought the yacht America
to England because he wished to bring about "the realization of the unity of mankind." The low, black schooner from New York was able to enter the 1851 race around the Isle of Wight, and there win the cup named for her, because the Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the Earl of Wilton, opened entry to "yachts belonging to the clubs of all nations." When America
’s owners deeded the cup to the New York Yacht Club six years later, they insisted that it be "perpetually a challenge cup for friendly competition between foreign countries."
These simply expressed ideals of inclusiveness, tolerance, challenge, and fair play still are wonderfully powerful, and yet it has been fashionable recently to scorn them. In competitive sailing and other sports, cynics and ironists sneer at them as the fantasies of idle Victorian visionaries out of touch with a dog-eat-dog world of commercial self-interest. To some people today, these ideals may seem even more irrelevant. But I would argue that in the shadow of the clouds over Ground Zero, we dare ignoring these ideals at great risk, for, on and off the playing field and sailboat racecourse, they lie at the heart of the civilization that the fanatics are so intent on destroying and that we are so intent on maintaining.
Because the civilized world now seems
shattered by fanaticism does not mean that we must be fanatics to defend it. The old values of unity, fairness, and everything else that makes up "friendly competition"—and democracy—cannot die so long as we desire them to thrive and exercise them in our daily lives. Unlike the rule of thumb about the futility of late-life friendships that Ben Fisher disproved last month, these values remain true, relevant, and real no matter how many times they show cracks.
If we are to pull ourselves out of the horror and take effective action that does not destroy who we are, we must not do as our enemies do. Their path is the race to hatred, alienation, and eventually mad self-destruction. Our path must be the careful walk through hope, renewal, reason, and justice—all of which are founded in what we already know and do with our own lives to make ourselves, our country, and our civilization what they are.