On September 11 we commemorate the loss of thousands of people to an unnatural disaster. Every year the human race suffers the loss of thousands of people to natural disasters — floods, earthquakes, blizzards, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes — disasters that we have very little chance of avoiding and no one to blame; only Nature.

Natural disasters fill us with pain, suffering, anxiety, fear, shock, bewilderment, and occasionally humility — feelings that we must live with, but feelings that ultimately remind us of how little control and knowledge we have of the world in which we live. We never know when one of these disasters will strike, alarm us, devastate us, and finally bury us. But unnatural disasters are different.

Unnatural disasters are created and executed by members of the human family in an attempt to make other members bend to their will, to rid of the world of the human race of their presence, to remove them as obstacles to the bully’s goal, to dehumanize them in order to punish them for being in the way, whatever way the bully has determined.

Unnatural disasters do indeed have someone to blame, the bully, the culprit, the enemy of human enterprise, that person or group of people who have selected their targets to be other human beings, who, for whatever reason, are an obstruction to what the bully considers justice. They have concluded that the only recourse left them is to annihilate those in their way.

I went to war in 1943 on behalf of my country against an enemy that was an unnatural disaster. I had no hesitation to offer myself for training and for combat to rid my world of that enemy; but never for one moment did I believe that I was doing the right thing. I knew I was doing the necessary thing, but not the right thing. The necessary but wrong thing was to murder him. That contradiction never kept me from my battalion nor from battle, despite my misery at attempting to murder perfect strangers.

I maintain such a duality to this day, knowing full well that I could murder the perpetrators of the September 11 disaster, but knowing that that solution is not the solution I want and need. I have to live with the contradiction because living (I am now eighty) is that important to me, and anyone who attempts to take that luxury will have considerable trouble with me.

I would prefer to recognize September 11 as a day that provides me with the humility necessary to be a member of the human race as well as member of Nature’s race, that disasters are inevitable, natural and unnatural, and I am required to seek the best possible solutions to that recognition. Humility before the mystery is the first step I have learned. But grief is the first step that I have taken.

Posted by Howard Stein

After 38 years of university teaching and administrating, Howard Stein retired from Columbia University in 1992.  His career included 11 years at the Yale School of Drama, where he was Associate Dean and Supervisor of the Playwriting Program; seven years at the University of Iowa, where he supervised the Playwriting Program; and 10 years at Columbia University where he was appointed the first permanent Chairman of the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies and Supervisor of the Playwriting Program. Howard Stein's plays have appeared in The Best One-Act Plays of 1951-52 and The Best Short Plays of 1959-60.  Harcourt Brace published his book, A Time to Speak in 1974 and Scribner's recently published his essay on James M. Barry in their British Writers series. Dr. Stein's essays on dramatic criticism, dramatic literature, theatre history, and dramaturgy have appeared in a host of journals since the 1950's.  He has directed National Endowment Summer Seminars for College Teachers 10 times since 1979. He finished an essay on Brander Matthews and, until 1997, had been co-editing The Best American Short Plays series published by Applause Books and he completed a gig at Bradley University, where he gave five speeches in three days. [Publisher's Note: Howard Stein was born on the Fourth of July -- and he died October 14, 2012 in Stamford, CT. He was 90.]

One Comment

  1. […] 38 years of university teaching and administrating, Howard Stein retired from Columbia University in 1992.  His career included 11 years at the Yale School of […]



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