International Travel in a Covid World (part two)

The first sign that something was amiss was when we pulled into the train station at the border crossing between Denmark and Germany. Danish soldiers dressed in urban camouflage and wearing snappy berets took positions on the platform at each of the doors and stopped travelers from either entering or exiting the train, their faces set in firm expressions of totalitarian authority. Other officers dressed in traditional police garb boarded the train, their faces serious and attentive, their hands staying close to their sidearms as they went seat-to-seat demanding papers, perusing the passports handed over by the wary passengers.

Wait. Firm expressions? Serious faces?

Yes, that’s right. I could see their faces. Those facial features were on full display. Because none of them, neither the soldiers guarding the doors, nor the police officers passing through the train were wearing masks. NO MASKS!

Viva la liberation de masks!

I waited until the officers had made their passport checks and left the train, and then asked an embarking passenger. “No mask requirements in Denmark?” “No,” he replied with a smile, his teeth flashing brilliantly in a display I’d missed over the last week. “No masks required on public transport, or anywhere really.”

What a magnificent sentence to hear.

Tracy and I stripped off our masks and wadded them into a ball, tossing them in the trash. We were free at last. Free of the scourge of idiocy that insisted mask wearing was useful in any way, shape, or form. Free of the performative regulation of clownish government leaders. Finally in a country that believed in science and followed logic in its laws and regulation. The passengers on this train ride were to be the last of the mask wearers that we would see for the next six days. All through our time in Copenhagen we saw next to zero masks. Everywhere we went we were greeted by smiling faces. Smiles. It’s hard to overstate how sucky it is to miss seeing smiles from people.

Far fewer than one in a hundred Danish citizens and visitors wear masks in public. Sure, you still see the occasional mask on someone in the hotel lobby, or in the subway station, or even walking down the street. But it is an anomaly. A curiosity really, something that draws your attention for the simple fact that it’s out of place, and the fact that it’s out of place and unusual is what makes it so divine. And that rare mask is in Copenhagen, the capitol city. I’m sure in smaller communities the number of masks is actually zero. After a couple of days, it actually becomes easy to forget that Covid is even a thing that the rest of the world is suffering. Everything in Copenhagen is just wide open, and the city is thriving.

This undoubtedly has to do with their vaccination status. A very strong 74.1% of the population is fully vaccinated, a number that puts them well into herd immunity status. As we were there, they were reporting only 7600 cases in the entire country, and only 30 people in serious condition in the hospital. The seven-day rolling average number of deaths was somewhere between one and two.

Between one and two deaths per day due to Covid. In the entire country of Denmark. Blissful.

There was some real concern that we wouldn’t be able to go to Sweden. Shortly before we arrived in Copenhagen, the Swedish government announced they were closing the country to all travelers from America. I was reasonably sure that though we were American, we were not considered “travelers from America” as we were certainly travelers from Denmark or possibly travelers from Germany by this point. There was nothing to fear though, as the announcement only applied to travelers arriving into Sweden by air. Our train from Copenhagen to Stockholm stopped for a brief moment at the border, and then continued on with nary an officer in sight checking documents or vaccination cards. Lovely.

We arrived in Stockholm and were once more welcomed by a country with no restrictions regarding masks, or vaccinations, or quarantines. Other than the air travel restrictions against Americans, which seems to be some sort of political gamesmanship as opposed to a serious health-related decision, Sweden was wide-open and welcoming. Sweden has a vaccination rate of 60%, far less than their neighbors to the southwest, but apparently still high enough that they aren’t worried about infections. They currently have 28,900 cases, of which 58 are serious enough to require hospitalization. Despite the higher numbers, their seven-day moving average number of deaths is just as low as Denmark, somewhere around two deaths per day. Again, a lovely number that allows the Swedish people to almost completely ignore the pandemic that is ravaging other parts of the world, the United States in particular.

With no restrictions on travel besides the ban on U.S. air travelers, there’s not much to talk about with regard to things to consider when traveling to the Nordic countries. There just isn’t anything to consider. It’s wide open.

Eventually, it was time to go, and we flew from Stockholm back to Berlin. There was a mask requirement at the airport in Stockholm, however, most travelers were completely ignoring the mandate, and nobody was enforcing it. When we boarded the plane, the flight attendants did request that everyone wear a mask, and they were handing them out to passengers who didn’t have one, a surprisingly high number of them.

For this flight to Berlin, we once again had to meet the entry requirements of Germany, which simply meant showing our proof of vaccination to the agent at the check-in counter. There was no border control, no official exit from Sweden, and no official entry into Germany upon landing at Berlin Brandenburg airport. We were, however, back in the land of masks, and our irritation at them had grown in the week of freedom we’d experienced.

The next day we were flying home, which meant another trip on British Airways through London, and all of the hassle of the UK’s travel restrictions, including proof of vaccination, a negative test, and the filling out of the Passenger Locator Form. We got Covid tested on our last day in Stockholm just to make sure we would have a negative result back in plenty of time for the flight to London, though we needn’t have worried. Our negative results were in our emails within an hour of testing, along with a signed travel certificate stating that we were safe to fly. Their program for providing these certificates was very easy and very smooth. It actually turned out that we didn’t even need to have gone through the very minor hassle of testing in Stockholm. At the Berlin airport, Covid testing was being conducted right in the check-in area, with results in fifteen minutes, a clear and simple path to the required testing for London.

The United States also requires a negative test for all returning travelers by air, so even if we hadn’t been transiting London on our return, we would still have needed the negative test to board any flight headed to the United States. Just prior to boarding our flight from Berlin, we also had to complete a U.S. declaration that stated that we “attest” that we’ve either had a negative Covid test within the preceding three calendar days, or that we’ve recovered from Covid after testing positive within the preceding three months, and that we have documentation to the above. The boarding agent in Berlin collected these attestations from us, so I have no idea of what use they are, or what happens to them. When we landed back in the United States, we both used Global Entry, which simply scans our faces and sends us through. No questions about anything, Covid related or otherwise.

I do so attest, random nonsense government paper creator person.

Covid has undoubtedly made travel tricky, but with a little effort, a lot of research, and a ton of patience, the regulations can be worked out and it is possible to once again enjoy a European vacation.

Now, where did I park my bike?

International Travel in a Covid World (part one)

That vagaries of international travel in a Covid world creates quite a few opportunities for either upside or downside. The upside is that fewer people are traveling, and with fewer travelers come the perks of lighter crowds, better seats, cheaper hotel rooms, and a more pleasant experience in every attraction, museum, restaurant, or historical site. The downside is that the stress and effort of travel has become much more arduous, the planning much more daunting. The real fear that you’ll be turned away at the airport before you even board your flight because your travel documents are not in order, or you’re missing some key piece of required paperwork adds an element of stress to a vacation that hasn’t really existed since the time of the Iron Curtain. Restrictions and requirements are changing constantly, and much of the literature and regulations are confusing and poorly written, very hard to understand and interpret.

For travelers from the United States, things are even more daunting. We aren’t exactly the role-model for the world when it comes to vaccination status, and coronavirus cases here are on the rise as the Delta variant flames its way through our population. This has caused the U.S. to be added to precisely zero “green lists” for international travel, and quite a few “red lists.” Luckily, most countries have U.S. travelers on a “yellow” or “amber list” currently, and the restrictions, while numerous, are manageable with a bit of time, effort, and patience in your planning.

Our trip involved flying to Berlin, Germany, on British Air, with a very quick layover in London. After a few days in Berlin, we would be taking a train to Copenhagen, Denmark, and staying there for a few days, before taking another train to Stockholm, Sweden and staying there a few days. We would then fly back to Berlin for a day or two, and then return to the United States with another layover in London. Save for the roundtrip flights in and out of Berlin, none of this was pre-booked and all subject to change based on our enjoyment of the various cities and the ever-changing regulations around Covid that could cause us to have to cancel or adjust certain legs. Luckily, this is how I prefer to travel anyway, so the uncertain nature of our trip was one I am well-accustomed to and enjoy immensely.

Because our entry-point to Europe was Berlin, I carefully navigated the often-confusing requirements for travel to Germany from the United States, and discovered, much to my delight, that we wouldn’t need a negative Covid test to enter Germany. The requirements for entry were:

1. Full vaccination for at least 14 days, or

2. A negative PCR or Antigen test taken within 72 and 48 hours respectively prior to arrival, or

3. Proof from a doctor of recovery from Covid within the preceding six months.

The “or” on these requirements was a welcome word, and since Tracy and I were both fully vaccinated, we didn’t need to do anything more than remember to bring our vaccination cards to the airport.

Or, so I thought.

It wasn’t until just a few days before our travel that I had a sudden thought that perhaps I should confirm that even though we were only stopping over in London, not leaving the airport or even clearing customs, which meant no official entry into the country, I should probably check to make sure there weren’t any odd rules to be aware of. It was a good thing I checked.

The rules for actually entering Great Britain are arduous and involve things like prescheduling Covid tests on day 2 and again on day 8, quarantines for many travelers, and other nonsense. It turned out, as I dug deeper, that even though we were only laying over, the Brits are quite protective of even their unofficial air, and we would be required to get a Covid test before we would be allowed access to the hallowed aisles of the British Airways 787-10.

The requirements for the specific nature of the test involved immersion rates and accuracy rates and a bunch of other numbers and percentages that nothing in the literature of the various testing sites allows you to confirm. I finally ended up just booking a rapid antigen test because it was the only one where the results would be available within 48 hours. All the testing sites around me were reporting results times of 72 hours or longer, and that wouldn’t work for the flight requirements, so I lied and said I was suffering Covid symptoms just so I could get a rapid test that I wasn’t even sure met the requirements for entry into a country that I wasn’t even officially entering. In addition to the proof of vaccination and negative Covid test, Britain also requires all travelers—even those just passing through—to complete a Passenger Locator Form. This form compiles every bit of information about you, your travel plans—right down to your seat number on all flights—your vaccination and test status, home address, telephone number, passport information, and shoe size.

What a complete pain in the ass.

Anyway, the results of my rapid Covid test came back in about fifteen minutes and were negative, and, shockingly, somehow when I got to the airport, the agent at the ticket counter wasn’t trained to know the difference between an antigen test with soluble rates of 98.7% at a diffusion of 300 grams per milliliter, a PCR test with sensitivity of 91.4% and specificity of 99.6%, and a picture of a cozy rabbit burrow stuffed with cute baby bunnies. It turned out that all she really cared about was the large, bold NEGATIVE stamped halfway down the results page, the vaccination dates on our cards, and that our U.S. passports were valid.

Whew.

On the flight, despite the fact that literally every person is fully vaccinated AND has tested negative within the previous couple of days, masks are still required, which, when you think about it even a little bit, is completely ludicrous. That little self-contained tube in the sky was probably the safest, most Covid-free piece of real estate in the entire world, and yet masks were required to be worn the entire flight. Luckily, we were flying in business class, which has private little cabins where you can’t even see another passenger, and so most of the flight attendants were quite lenient when it came to enforcing the mask mandate. I actually took mine off completely when I laid out my bed and went to sleep for a few hours, and nobody woke me to demand I put a completely useless piece of cloth over my mouth. When we arrived in Berlin, the customs agents wanted to see our passports and our vaccination cards, and that was it, a very simple entry into Germany, and our vacation was underway.

Germany does have some quite strict Covid protocols in place. It’s not just that masks are required everywhere indoors, but they specifically are required to be “medical masks,” which most people in Germany take to mean N95s. Nobody is wearing a bandanna, or a gator, or a scarf over their face like I see all over the U.S. The citizenry are religious maskers in Germany, and every person wears a medical mask, with at least 50% of them of the N95 variety. I rarely saw anybody (other than myself) openly flouting the law and not wearing their masks, and they do apparently levy fines of 50 Euros or more if you are caught willfully violating the mask mandate. It was quite clear that the Germans have received their marching orders from their leaders, and they have fallen in line to snap their heels together, salute, and obey. Hmmm.

I should say here, if my opinion isn’t already clear, mask mandates are stupid. They are performative in nature, designed to make people feel like they’re making a difference and taking steps to be safe while ignoring the science that says that masks, especially the non-N95 variety, are almost entirely useless. In particular, in areas where everybody is required to be vaccinated and test negative, as on the flights, requiring masks in addition to those rules is nothing more than willful disdain for common sense. That being said, N95 masks likely do actually provide some small amount of protection and help to stop the spread of Covid, and if you were going to require a mask mandate in your country the percentage of people wearing the N95 variety is at least encouraging even if it is still ridiculous.

Not only does Germany require and mandate mask wearing indoors, they also require proof of vaccination or a negative test everywhere. I mean everywhere. The hotel requires it at check-in. Many restaurants require it when you go to dinner. Museums, attractions, and tours, all require you to show proof that you are vaccinated or don’t currently have Covid. It’s absolutely nuts to have to show that proof to your maître d’, and then have him also demand you pull your mask up over your nose before he shows you to your table. It’s utter lunacy.

Luckily, all of this idiocy was going to soon come to an end as we boarded a high-speed train for Copenhagen, Denmark, and the start of the Nordic leg of our journey.

A Scourge of Scooters

They litter the sidewalks, trails, lawns, and streets like fallen soldiers after a horrendous battle. Graveyards of dark green, and lime green, and some shade of green in between. Purple, orange, silver, and pink, each color vibrantly bright, designed to draw the eye. They’re haphazardly discarded, uncaringly dropped wherever was convenient, their riders long gone, never to be seen again. They’ve been used and abused, ridden hard and fast, then dropped in random spots awaiting the next rider, or the agent of the rental company who will allegedly come by to collect them at some point.

The electric scooters of Berlin, Germany are a blemish on the very soul of this vibrant, clean, and happy city. The rental companies are many, all striving for a piece of the rental scooter market, and the winners of their consumer battles are evident in the quantity of the dead soldiers they’ve left neglected. Many of the scooters are unrideable, batteries dead or parts broken, and they sit forgotten all over the city. One would assume that the rental companies would come by every night to gather their apparatuses, charge them, repair them, and then deposit them in the spots where they’re most likely to be rented, but this doesn’t seem to happen, at least not often enough. Scooters that were dead one day are often in the same place the next day, still dead and unrentable.

The scooter companies are responsible for only a small slice of this rather large blame-pie, though. The renters of these scooters themselves are awful, often leaving their rental rides in the most obscene places, blocking sidewalks and even streets, leaning them against light poles instead of using their built-in stands so that a wind, or a brush from a passerby, or gravity itself knocks them to the ground. They take the scooters into the forbidden zones and drop them in the middle of squares, on steps, or on the grass of parks. I can’t help but feel these soulless miscreants who leave these scooters in such selfish fashion are the same people who smoke cigarettes in public places and drop their butts on the street. Egoistic, feral reprobates who are a stain on society. The riders also apparently think they’re invincible and operating in the confines of a controlled racetrack. They often ignore the bike lanes where the scooters are supposed to operate, and instead speed down sidewalks, zig-zagging around pedestrians, or zipping across streets forcing motorists to swerve or brake. It’s barely-controlled chaos, and the security of being a pedestrian on what should be a safe sidewalk is nullified by the multitude of near-misses that happen regularly.

The city itself shares some of the blame as well. They haven’t adopted enough rules and laws to force the scooter companies to compel good behavior from their users. As an example, Stockholm also has a large number of rental electric scooters, but they’ve implemented no-ride and no-park zones all over the city, areas where the scooters are GPS forbidden, where the top speed is capped at walking speed, and where you can’t end your ride. The scooter companies in Stockholm—many of the same ones that are in Berlin—make you take a picture of your scooter parked safely and correctly before you can end your ride, and until you do so, the rental fee clock ticks away. Berlin doesn’t require that. Berlin has a few of the zones where you aren’t able to end your ride, but they are too few, and that token effort seems to be the only one they’ve taken to control the lawless circus of the scooter market. Berlin is the wild west of the scooter frontier, and they’ve lost all control of order and allowed the city to descend into scooter chaos.

As bad as the scourge of scooters in Berlin is, I can’t be too mad. The scooters themselves are unquestionably fun and a blast to ride. With the wide array of market competition, prices are low and deals can be found, and the scooters are a very good way of getting around the sprawling city quickly and enjoyably, feeling the wind on your face and the exhilaration of the 20 KPH+ zip down the bike lane or the sidewalk. By implementing a few laws and fines for non-compliance, Berlin could easily clean up the scooter scourge while maintaining what is, without a doubt, the most enjoyable way to travel around the city.

Fürstenberg’s dirty little Secret.

The town sits at the confluence of three perfect little lakes, a charmingly idyllic town of old-world gothic-style huts mixed with more modern but still quaint stucco and tile. The streets are cobblestone, and the citizens amble about without rush, stopping to chat outside small stores, pushing carts laden with bags to their homes on quiet cul-de-sacs devoid of traffic. The church sits in the center of town, its steeple the tallest structure for miles, visible from every part of the surrounding countryside. A green park sits on the shore of the largest of the three lakes that ring the little town, old people sit on benches staring out at the water while small skiffs and sail boats zoom around the lake. Three children play soccer on an improvised pitch, laughing and shrieking as the ball splits the goalposts for a score. Across the lake, in full view of the park and the town sits a tall stone pillar, a statue of a woman atop the pillar holding another in her arms and gazing out over the lake toward the town. Behind the monolith is a towering stone wall, a few crumbling chimney stacks and peaked roofs jutting over the top.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp from a park in the town of Fürstenberg.

The town is called Fürstenberg, and it lies an hour north of Berlin, Germany, an easy train ride across lush green farmlands dotted with wooden hunting blinds, towering windmills spinning in the light breeze, and patches of dense forests, farmhouses and sleepy little hamlets with dirt roads crowded up against the train tracks. Fürstenberg is bucolic and whimsical, a relaxing vacation spot within easy reach of Germany’s bustling capital city. This quiet little town of relaxing frivolity hides a dirty little secret though, and this secret is the reason we’ve come to visit. That towering monolith with the statue of the woman overlooking the lake marks the site of the notorious Ravensbrück Concentration camp, Hitler’s brutal prison for women and children, where as many as 60,000 political prisoners were murdered during the war. For six years, Ravensbrück’s crematoriums belted out smoke and ash as bodies burned and the residents of the quaint little town of Fürstenberg looked on with indifference, ignoring, and in many cases, even enabling the murder and torture taking place across the picturesque little lake.

A Nazi prisoner train unloading at Furstenberg.

We disembark the train from Berlin and stand a moment on the platform, the same platform where the scared victims of the Nazi purges once huddled before being prodded on the march through town. We take the same walk, past shops and houses that weren’t here 80 years ago, but picturing in our minds the way it would have looked then. Residents of the town watching as SS overseers pushed and prodded the women and children being herded toward their doom. It would have seemed surreal to the prisoners, the beauty and tranquility of the charming town luring them into a sense that everything was going to be all right.

The walk is almost two miles, the road becoming a single lane of cobblestones that winds through the deciduous forest of mixed hardwoods, obscured views of the blue lake shimmering through the trees. It would have seemed impossible to the prisoners that doom and death waited for them in such a beautiful location.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp lies just around that corner to the left.

The first houses we see were once the houses where the prison guards—mostly women recruited and trained by the SS—would have lived. They still stand, used now as some sort of retreat where people sit on the balconies and watch us march past.

Former houses of the SS Commandant and guards of Ravensbrück.

We enter the Ravensbrück concentration camp and stand just inside the gate gazing out at the compound. The buildings that once housed the prisoners have mostly been razed, and black pumice stone covers the ground where they once stood. We are nearly alone in the camp, and we walk quietly back toward the few buildings that still stand, an audio guide that Tracy downloaded playing quietly from her phone, telling us what everything used to be when this camp held thousands of women and children prisoner. We walk into one of the buildings and see statues standing in the shadows of the hallway, eerie sentinels of blasted stone that are like something from a horror movie. They stand silently, and no placard tells us what they are for. We never do find out. There are no guides, no employees at all, and only a few other guests wandering in silence around the abandoned camp.

The camp is expansive, once holding tens of thousands of prisoners. The women and children who were interred here were mostly political prisoners, and they were not necessarily marked for death, though toward the end of the war, more than 80 a day were dying through disease, starvation, or execution. The women overseers of the camp, trained by the Nazi SS and recruited from both Fürstenberg and the surrounding area, were evil—brutal and uncaring. Whips rang out regularly for the slightest of infractions, and the gas chamber was always waiting for the death sentences that occasionally came down from the SS command.

And the town of Fürstenberg sat quietly across the lake and ignored it all.

With 80-plus deaths and murders each day, the crematorium was always busy, burning bodies into ash, smoke belching from its twin smoke stacks almost constantly. The smell of burning bodies and the particles that would have carried across the lake on the wind would have left no doubt as to what was happening in this “camp.”

But the town of Fürstenberg sat there quietly and paid no mind to the atrocities.

Two of Ravensbrück’s ovens.

The Ravensbrück Rabbits were a group of nearly 100 women imprisoned in the camp who became the test subjects of Nazi doctors studying various diseases and infections. In Hitler’s Hell for Women, the Rabbits were nothing but laboratory animals as the doctors used their limbs to study and recreate war wounds. They would bring women into their tents, cut open their bodies and intentionally infect those wounds with bacteria, wood chips, and glass, trying to cause gangrene so they could study it. They experimented with removing and damaging nerves, muscles, and bones in an effort to learn how to better operate on Nazi soldiers who were wounded in the war. The Rabbits suffered and died despite the other women in the camp protecting them and starving themselves to give the victims extra food, clothing, and blankets. Women risked their lives to smuggle out messages to the outside world in letters home with extra paragraphs written with urine as an invisible ink. They reported these doctors and their medical experiments in the hope that help would somehow arrive.

But the town of Fürstenberg sat silent, condoning the horror through silence.

The Pietá of Ravensbrück is the name given to the statue of the woman holding another in her arms, standing atop the stele and gazing over the lake toward Fürstenberg. She seems to cry for help from the residents, as the women and children of Ravensbrück once did. The church steeple, clearly visible from the concentration camp, the clanging of it’s bells which would have been audible across the small lake, seems to stare back with indifference to the suffering Pietá. The same indifference the town once showed to the victims of Nazi horrors taking place right next door to them.

Ravensbrück is Fürstenberg, Germany’s dirty little secret, and the shame of that secret casts an indelible shadow over the otherwise idyllic little town.

The Pietá of Ravensbrück stares across the lake at the town of Fürstenberg .

The Courage of 9/11

Next week marks the twentieth anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack to ever take place on American soil. Muslim fundamentalists became terrorists and planes became missiles, filling the skies with terror and carnage that would forever change the course of history for the entire world. While the death and destruction from that day is an immutable memory seared in our heads, we should remember that there was more to those incidents than the havoc and devastation that dominated our screens. On that day, twenty years ago, courage and heroism were in abundance across the gamut of attacks that took place, and, while some of that courage has been documented and acknowledged, other examples have been mostly overlooked, or the courageous aspect of the deed ignored. Next week, while a splurge of articles and media reports will no doubt fill our synapses with memories of that history-changing day, I want to take a moment to talk about the courage of 9/11.

Courage is defined as action in the face of fear. There are many people who think that they aren’t courageous simply because they’re scared, but courage actually requires fear. Courage is being scared but acting anyway. Fighting your base instinct to take no action, or to remove yourself from the action that is necessary, wanting to turn back, to run, to hide, but moving forward regardless. Not everyone is capable of courage. There are many who freeze with fear, paralyzed by the magnitude of the event or the decision. When people push through that paralysis and act, we marvel at that action, and we acknowledge it. Not all courage is equal, and not all that we call courageous is actually courage. Too often that term is thrown around in situations where it doesn’t apply, diminishing the word and weakening the actions of those who truly earned that brand. The courage on display on 9/11 was pure and it was undeniable, though not all of it resulted in good. I think it’s important to recognize the courage both pure and impure, both heroic and anti-heroic, on that day, for reasons that I hope will be clear.

We’ve all discussed and acknowledged the courage of the first responders—the police officers, firefighters, and others who ran toward the towers that day. The shock of seeing a jumbo jet slam into a skyscraper that before this day had seemed indomitable, an everlasting symbol of not just our nation, but the entire world of capitalism and finance, could have, should have, and, in many cases probably did cause many to freeze, to stand in shock, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, their bodies immobile with gut-wrenching fear. When the second plane, United Airlines flight 175, crashed into the south tower, the majority of us were watching from home, safely in our living rooms while the scenario played out on our televisions. It was shocking even from there. From the ground, the ear-splitting scream of the turbofan engines as the hijackers shoved them to full throttle, the gut-wrenching explosion above your head which would have rained glass, steel, concrete, and debris across the entire World Trade Center complex, the smell of jet fuel permeating the air, the shaking of the very ground you stood on, and the visceral screams of all those around you, the stumbling, shell-shocked walking wounded with blood pouring from them, the thumps as bodies splashed onto the ground around you, and the knowledge—no longer in any doubt—that this was not an accident, that this was intentional, an attack on America, and that your country, your city, the very patch of concrete that you stood on right now was ground zero of a warzone…this could have and should have been immobilizing.

And still, they ran into the buildings. Toward the fire and the screams and the carnage. This is courage.

There was much more courage on display than just the rescuers who ran into the doomed buildings. When the planes smashed into the towers, the twisted metal and blazing flames blocked off all access points to escape routes for the majority of those trapped on the floors above the wreckage. They had nowhere to go, imprisoned in their offices as smoke and heat rose to greet them. So many of them made heart-wrenching calls to loved ones. Calls to tell their families that they were trapped and they didn’t know if they would be able to escape. In so many of these calls, the speaker is calm and collected, saying goodbye in their own unique way, their voices shaky but confident as they leave messages of love. The courage to overcome the near panic of being trapped to be able to leave a message of hope and love, and to say goodbye in a calm voice should not be overlooked.

On the floors below those leaving messages for their loved ones, the floors that were just above or just below the wreckage of the planes, things were much more desperate. The heat and smoke and noxious fumes of burning steel and debris were overpowering. Fear exploded in these helpless beings as they broke windows and hung themselves out over the void, grasping to ledges for dear life as they prayed and shouted for rescue to the responders who were tiny dots a thousand feet below them. Rescue was impossible, and the situation for these poor souls was unimaginable. Many of them took an extraordinary step to escape the inferno.

The Falling Man – Richard Drew/AP

This picture is known as The Falling Man. It’s an everlasting image that was captured by photographer Richard Drew of the Associated Press, and it probably should have won him a Pulitzer. Instead, it won him scorn and derision. It represents, without words, so much of the fear and devastation of that day. This is a jumper. One of approximately 200 people who chose to jump to their deaths from the hellscape in which they were trapped. The decision to loose yourself from the burning building and plummet for 10 to 15 seconds to a certain death on the pavement 1000 feet below is hard to imagine. It’s a decision that takes incredible courage.

If you’ve never seen this picture of the falling man, there’s a simple explanation. Many news agencies refused to show it. Many showed it once and received such backlash from citizen complaints that they never showed it again. There’s a good chance that something in you recoiled from looking at it here. And there’s a simple explanation for that.

It shows a man committing suicide, and our society shuns that stigma as morally wrong.

It doesn’t matter that this man was doomed to die in one of the most painful ways imaginable. It doesn’t matter that there was no escape for him, that he was hanging by a thread with flames licking at his body when he gave up. We can not acknowledge his decision because in so many of our minds, he made the wrong decision. He jumped. He committed suicide, and we can’t accept that.

I’m here to tell you, not only do I accept it, I consider this an act of extreme courage.

When Peter Cheney, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, set out to determine the identity of The Falling Man, he started with his clothing. It was the clothing of a chef, he realized, and that led him to the famous north tower restaurant, Windows on the World. By tracking down all of the employees who were present that day and those who’s bodies were identified, along with the locations of their remains, he was able to figure out that there was a very distinct likelihood that The Falling Man was Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at Windows on the World. When he contacted Hernandez’s family to show them his evidence that he may have identified their loved one, he was met with incredible backlash. Hernandez’s daughter went so far as to make a statement, saying,

“That piece of shit is not my father.”

That piece of shit. The family of one of the victims of the World Trade Center attack was so fearful of the stigma of suicide that they could not bear the idea that this jumper may have been their loved one. There was no way that their Norberto would have jumped to his death. Only a “piece of shit” would choose his own death in that way.

Such is the stigma of this action in our society that the medical examiner responsible for identifying the bodies didn’t even refer to them as “jumpers.” The picture is titled The “Falling” Man, not The Jumper. On the official report of the deaths of 9/11, the 200 jumpers are referred to as “fallers.” No doubt this is partially accurate. Unquestionably with all of the people hanging from the broken windows, many of them precariously leaning with most of their body over the gulf, some accidentally fell. There’s also no doubt though, that many of them jumped. And I think those jumpers showed enormous courage.

There is courage in making any tough decision in the face of fear, particularly a decision that guarantees your death. Humans have a strong desire to live, and none of the 200 from that day thought they might have a chance at life by jumping or falling. There was no doubt that they were making a decision that was going to be their last. It is so tough to imagine the hell on Earth that they were experiencing in that tower that made jumping a better option than staying. There was no way for them to know if rescue was coming, or if the fire suppression system would somehow kick on, or if the wind would shift and push the flames away from them. And yet, they knew that none of those things were likely, and that staying meant a continuation of the incredible pain and suffering as the devastating inferno raged through their former offices. And so, they jumped. Or let go. And by doing so, they chose 10 seconds of cool, rushing air, followed by a painless eternal blackness. The fear of jumping had to be overwhelming, and yet they made that decision, and I think that makes them incredibly courageous. I can not fathom calling them cowards, or “pieces of shit” for that choice. Yet, our society is such a moral backwater that this is what we do.

When Mohamed Atta, the hijacker piloting American Flight 11, banked that 767 onto the collision course with the North Tower and then jammed the throttles forward as the building loomed and his own death became certain, he still had a choice. He could have veered off the collision course at any time. He could have changed his mind and decided that what he’d agreed to do, what he’d trained to do was madness. There’s no doubt that his heart was racing. There’s no doubt that he was terrified as he and his copilot confronted their own deaths. The hijackers of the second plane, United Flight 175, had a great view of the smoking hole that used to be their friends and co-conspirators. They saw first-hand what happened to their comrades and they still turned their own jet inbound and powered into the skyscraper. It’s one thing to imagine your own glorious demise. It’s quite another to see exactly what will happen to you and to still proceed. There’s no doubt that following through with the slamming of those two jumbo jets into the two towers and the one into the side of the Pentagon took prodigious amounts of courage.

The hijackers deserve our scorn and derision of course. They were homicidal terrorists who murdered thousands. But we can both disparage them and, at the same time, acknowledge that what they did took incredible courage. In fact, we need to acknowledge their courage in order to ascertain what it was that gave them such courage. What was it that allowed these men to turn those jets onto a collision course with concrete and steel, push the throttles forward to their stops, and immolate themselves into the fire of oblivion? When we acknowledge that these actions took true and pure courage, we can begin to figure out where that courage came from, and we can try to take steps to ensure that this type of courage, this homicidal courage that is indoctrinated into these men doesn’t happen again.

What is it that causes men to become radicalized suicide (or homicide) bombers? Is it the same courage that causes a soldier to jump on a grenade, or is it something different? When a soldier jumps on a grenade, he’s committing suicide, there’s no doubt about it. Even when he somehow lives, his actions were still suicidal. And yet, we call him hero. We award him with our highest honors and medals. We do this in spite of the fact that he committed suicide, and we don’t call it suicide, even though it very clearly is. We do this because his suicidal action was done with the intent of saving others. When a man straps on a suicide vest and blows himself to smithereens in a crowded market, we call him coward. We call him a murderer and a terrorist. The act though, is the same. In both cases the men are making the decision to blow themselves up. So shouldn’t we acknowledge that both actions require the same level of courage? In fact, can’t we posit that the suicide bomber, who has all day to think about his decision and the consequences of his decision and still goes through with it may be even more courageous than the soldier who jumps on a grenade and may not have even considered the consequences of his actions? Some of the survivors of such actions have said that they, “didn’t even think, they just acted.” This shows that these types of actions may not involve courage at all. They may actually just be indicative of an inability to think through the consequences of your actions, something we despise in everyday life.

Once we acknowledge the courage of the 9/11 hijackers, then we can figure out the source of that courage. We can track that courage back to one basic concept. The same source that gives suicide bombers their courage. The courage of both comes from exactly one source: religion. The type of religious courage that can only arise from the surety that your place at God’s side is secure, that the action you’re taking, this homicidal maelstrom that you’re unleashing is exactly what will secure you the grace of your God. It’s this kind of religious zealotry that has caused more pain and suffering in the history of humanity than any other source. From paganism and polytheism and their human sacrifices, to the Crusades of Christianity and their witch hunts and heretic burnings, to the terrorism of Muslim fundamentalists with their suicide murderers, extreme religious beliefs have caused incalculable death and anguish throughout time. Religious certainty leaves no room for opposition, it elevates its believers to the status of the pious and the righteous, and it excuses literally any act that can be justified as furtherance of God’s will. The 19 hijackers that day showed astounding courage, and that courage was born of religious fervor and righteous certainty, and that is something we should all be striving to vanquish from our society.

The first responders, the trapped, the jumpers, the passengers on the flights who called authorities in defiance of their hijackers to report the hijackings, and those on United flight 93 who attempted to take back their airplane, causing it to crash into a field in Pennsylvania instead of its intended target in Washington D.C., and, yes, even the hijackers of those four flights all showed incredible courage that day. Some of the courage was admirable. Some of it was despicable. All of it was unquestionable. The courage of 9/11 presented itself in many different aspects, and, as we look back to that fateful day twenty years ago, we can both admire and learn from all who showed it that day.

*Cover photo credit Seth McAllister/AFB