Why do we wait for a catastrophe, death, or some other negative event to strike before we say or do the right thing?
We know it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, one that we’ve mulled over for many years; perhaps we’ll saddle the philosophers and psychologists with that duty.
Think back to the hours and days following a public tragedy and you’ll undoubtedly recall the kindest words about victims emanating from the mouths of sworn enemies who waited too long to do the right thing and put down their swords. Where was the hyper-partisanship, the inherent divisiveness, the tedious bickering and finger pointing from political rivals in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks? After evacuating the Capitol earlier in the day, roughly 150 members of Congress came together in the evening on the building’s East Front steps. According to Office of the History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives, “Senators stood by Representatives, Democrats next to Republicans, and the leadership of both houses gathered as a symbol of strength for a country shocked and saddened by the day’s barbaric acts of terrorism.” After they observed a moment of silence, the elected officials performed an impromptu rendition of “God Bless America.”
“The image of the Congress standing strong and united became an important source of inspiration in the days following the attack,” according to the House historian. “The outpouring of patriotism reverberated around the world.” During his Sept. 20, 2001, Joint Session address, President George W. Bush singled out the event. “I thank the Congress for its leadership at such an important time,” he said. “All of America was touched on the evening of the tragedy to see Republicans and Democrats joined together on the steps of this Capitol singing ‘God Bless America.’”
So it took roughly 3,000 people to perish for something like this to happen? And it was so out of practice, so novel that the leader of the free world cited it in one of the most important speeches in the history of our republic.
Remember the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings? Everyone was Boston Strong that week. The images of the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev four days after the attacks on Boylston Street are indelible—not just for the drama and significance of the moment, but because we also witnessed hundreds if not thousands of people cheering on police officers and chanting their names. Why did it take four deaths and nearly 300 wounded for a community to positively erupt like that?
The sudden death of State Sen. Jose Peralta brought our original existential inquiry to the fore again. Peralta passed away on Wednesday, Nov. 21, at Elmhurst Hospital from a blood infection. The married father of two boys was just 47 years old.
The outpouring of positive, gleaming comments from some of his political rivals has been heartwarming. The push to name the DREAM Act in honor of the legislator has been comforting. But why did it take this man’s sudden death to inspire such a reaction?
It seems that demise is the fuel for doing the right thing. We shouldn’t have to wait for tragedy to talk about one another’s triumphs.