The Day I would have Pushed the Kill Button

It is September 11, 2014, and just before sunrise I found myself pulling in to Boston Logan International Airport’s central parking garage. Morning radio show hosts had helped me pass the drive in to the airport by awkwardly switching from the latest celebrity news to the recognition that it was the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Though painful everywhere, the memory of 9/11 is particularly acute in Boston, and especially so at Boston Logan Airport, where two flights – United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines flight 11 – departed on their unscheduled route to the twin towers in New York City.

It is because of Logan’s connection to 9/11 that a small but poignant memorial was erected outside the central parking garage, listing the names of all the people – passengers and crew – aboard those two planes. The memorial is infuriatingly hard to get to. But with enough persistence and some disregarding of signs allegedly trying to help, you can arrive at the memorial itself. That’s how I found myself there, alone, on an otherwise average Tuesday morning.

James at the Boston Logan Airport 9/11 memorial, September 11, 2014. Photo by the author.

I found the solitude somehow fitting, and on this visit, welcome, as it gave me time to contemplate the site, appreciate its tragic beauty, and come to terms with the most terrible thing I have ever thought. The day I wished more than anything for a kill button.

That day was September 11, 2001. It was a sparkling clear morning, the one memorialized in footage from New York City that day. Boston weather was just as clear which gave the eye a vast expanse to scan as I drove furiously from my office in Cambridge to my home in the suburbs. I fled like a hunted animal, instinctively driven to my burrow by the thought that at any moment another plane could come hurtling across the sky and collide with the Hancock Tower. It was an irrational thought and I knew it at the time — but the power of the irrational mind is itself quite rational and it moved me to go home, turn on the TV news coverage of the attacks, and eventually imagine the kill button.

The kill button is a simple device. It is the button which, when pressed, would kill an entire group of people in a single stroke. It is a button I wished for and wanted to press that afternoon.

If given the opportunity to push the kill button and with one motion wipe out everyone who was involved in the planning and execution of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I would have. It is the single most violent and hateful thing I have ever thought. It is a thought I am not proud of nor do I disavow it.

It is the thought I had to reconsider while standing at the 9/11 memorial at Logan airport this morning, as I prepared to board a large, recently fueled jet near the very spot where those two ill-fated flights departed thirteen years ago.

We have the luxury of living in an age where the instinct to kill every single one of your enemies is regarded with complete disdain. We have a name for it, genocide, and when invoked it suggests one of the most terrible human crimes ever contemplated.

I am grateful we have the privilege to consider genocide beneath us. However, the frightening truth is that the only reason we do is that we stand on the bones of the many peoples and cultures that were handily dispatched by our ancestors. In this respect we are all the descendants of and, yes, beneficiaries of the genocidal instinct to push the kill button.

There are remnants of oppressed or dispossessed peoples like what’s left of my mother’s people, the Native Hawaiians, who point out with full justification that their people were nearly made extinct by some combination of violence, disease, or exploitation. But even as I listen to my Hawaiian cousins rail against their improper treatment, I am uncomfortable signing up as an aggrieved party because I know that my Hawaiian ancestors only survived on those islands by killing other islanders over hundreds of years. In fact, some fossil records as well as oral traditions suggest that there was a distinct race of people in Hawaii before my Polynesian forebearers arrived. That race is no longer with us and it is more than likely that they were removed from their perch in the Pacific through genocidal means.

Read a stunning book like Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne about the sweeping history of the Comanche – one of the last Native American tribes to range widely across the plains – and you can’t help but come to two conclusions. First, these people were beautiful, powerful, and admirable in startling ways. Second, they were also genocidal maniacs capable of incredibly depraved crimes against humanity.

Just the kinds of crimes that have deposited each of us here today. Genocide is perhaps a narrow term that applies in specific cases but the general impulse to wipe others out is not narrow nor is it a relic of the past.

I’ve felt it. Gratefully, I did not have the means to act on the impulse when it came to me. And even more gratefully, the impulse soon left me, though the desire to see somebody come to harm – or be brought to justice, I’m not sure the distinction is clear at first – remained for some time.

I do not disavow my prior feeling, however. I cannot pretend that the better me won because if there were a better me he wouldn’t have wanted to push the kill button at all. The better me is the me that’s capable – just as were the Comanche – of both virtue and depravity but which consistently chooses to act on my virtuous impulses while restraining the depraved, the atrocious, and the criminal.

But I recognize I live in a luxurious era where those impulses also do me no good and so can rationally be put to one side. Would I be so confident in my choice of virtue if I lived in the face of the descending Mongol horde? It’s a question one would love to ask of the leaders of the very advanced and civilized city of Gurgandj which was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221 in one of the most horrific and complete massacres in history. The Mongols pushed the kill button, something the Mongols seemed particularly willing to do but not exclusively so. There remain those today who would push such a button.

Would I be so confident in my choice of virtue if I lived in Syria or Northern Iraq where it was clear ISIS wanted to do to me and my family what the Mongols did in 1221? Would I want to press the kill button then? Would I wish that President Obama had that button and was willing to press it?

These are questions I won’t answer, but they are thoughts that suggested themselves, first gently and then insistently as I watched the dawn light filter through the sparkling glass of the Logan airport 9/11 memorial and then left to board the plane where I wrote these words. They are questions I worry my children will have to ask themselves, whether prompted by ISIS, a resurgent Russia or a group we don’t know about yet. Any group that believes it has the right to push its kill button before we get the chance to push ours.

James McQuivey is a husband, father, technology analyst, and writer who generally doesn’t imagine hurting people.

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