Mr. Ward, what is it that the foulest bastards on earth denounce us for, among other things? Oh yes, for our motto of ‘Business as usual.’ Well—business as usual, Mr. Ward!
--Hank Rearden, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
In the fall of 2001, I was a law student, interviewing with law firms. At the bottom of my resume, where law students identify personal interests that are supposed to “humanize” them, I listed “quotations.” Naturally, I was asked quite a few times for quotations pertinent to 9/11. I chose two. One, the second verse of an old favorite song
, stressed the insignificance of death in comparison with life. The other, quoted above, emphasized the importance of pursuing the work that makes life possible even when faced with destruction.
On 9/11, people were killed because they were exchanging value for value.
I was reminded of that quote this week by a Wall Street Journal
article on one of the businesses most directly faced with destruction on 9/11: Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, an investment banking company that had been located in the World Trade Center. Before the attack, KBW had employed 171 people in New York. One in three died that day.
Did KBW pursue business as usual? Well, not quite. You don’t go on exactly as before when you lose one friend or close colleague, let alone 67. But among the decisions the company made in that autumn of death was to embrace business as usual in a symbolically important respect:
In early September 2001, KBW executives believed they were weeks away from a deal with BNP [a French bank that wanted to acquire KBW]. The suitors had tentatively agreed on a price and were drawing up employment contracts for key employees. On Sept. 10, a BNP executive had spent the day kicking the tires at KBW's newly refurbished World Trade Center offices.
Now, everything felt different. Mr. Duffy [KBW’s chief executive] told the group that the BNP offer was still on the table—at a reduced price. Then he asked whether it would be easier to rebuild with or without a new parent. “We want to do this on our own,” Mr. Michaud, the stock trader, responded. “It's the best way to remember those who passed away.”
The firm’s leaders decided to try to rebuild KBW into a larger version of what it was before. So they got to work. “None of us wanted 9/11 to be the last day in the firm’s history,” says Mr. Duffy. “We didn't want the bad guys to win.”
What they seem to have recognized implicitly was this: Their murdered colleagues were not random victims. They did not die while, coincidentally, at their place of work. They were killed because
they were at their place of work, because
of what that place symbolized: trade, ambition and achievement. Throughout history, people have been killed because they were fighting over the power to impose their will on others; on 9/11, people were killed because they were exchanging value for value, each pursuing his own values by providing value to the individuals who chose to trade with him. This is “business as usual.” This is what the enemy sought to destroy. This is what the 67 KBW martyrs went to work to do the day they died.
(A painting of the names of the 67 employees of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods who died at the World Trade Center 10 years ago. Photo credit: Stephanie Sinclair/VII for The Wall Street Journal)
Production and trade sustain human life. The resources we use, from basic foods to advanced technology, exist only because people create them. And the variety and scale of production that shapes modern life is made possible by trade: It takes specialization and trade to make a pencil, let alone a computer; it is because they buy tractors, pesticides and the like that American farmers are so productive—and because of this that while even the most successful of the earliest humans were never far from starvation, dying of hunger is a remote threat for even very poor Americans.
It might be noted, of course, that selling KBW to BNP would have been a trade too; in fact, KBW has been quite active in mergers and acquisitions in the financial sector. So from that aspect, completing the deal would have been in keeping with the work that was interrupted on 9/11.
But symbolically, preserving KBW as an independent company meant sustaining the institution within which those 67 people did the work for which they were killed. More than that, it meant insisting—in the face of death—on the value of life, and on the value of production and trade, which sustain life.
It meant proceeding with business as usual.