Wednesday, September 11, 2013


On the morning of September 11, 2001, when I learned about the crashes of two commercial airliners into each of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, I was sitting in a conference room on the 42nd floor of the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.  It was the sixth day of my tenure as a new attorney at a medium-sized law firm in that city, and I was receiving orientation into the various practice areas of the firm.

At a break, I remember someone stepping into the conference room and saying that a plane had crashed into the WTC.  My thought at that point was that something had obviously gone horribly wrong--a major malfunction with the plane, something wrong with the pilot, perhaps someone's suicide.  At that point, it was not altogether clear that the plane was a commercial jet.  I visualized someone's private plane.

That was followed a couple of minutes later by someone saying that a second plane had crashed in the same location, and that both had been commercial airliners.  In the shock of the moment, as my understanding of what was happening rapidly recalibrated to these new facts, I remember remarking, with a nervous laugh, "that's obviously no accident."

It soon became clear that it was not a laughing matter.  Our orientation sessions were canceled.  I returned to my office, which was located in another building downtown.  I called Michelle and told her to turn on the news.  I remembered that my father often traveled for work.  I called his wireless phone; thankfully, he was not in the air that day.  He'd flown to Indiana the day before for an assignment.

An hour or so later, the managing partner of the firm, whose office was in my building, knocked on my door to tell me that the firm was closing for the day, not because we believed our building was a target, but out of respect for what was happening.  We were living downtown at the time, so I walked the seven blocks home, where Michelle and I watched the coverage.

Millions of words have been written about that day, a few thousand of them coming from my keyboard.  And today marks 12 years since it happened.

As we would later learn, that day was a day of remarkable courage on the part of some otherwise ordinary people--people who, when the time came to show it, demonstrated the best that Americans have to offer the world.  That day, what was required of these people was all that they had, and they stepped forward and gave it anyway.

What is required of us is to remember their sacrifice.  I do remember it, and I respect it.  But what is also required of is to remember why their sacrifice is meaningful.  So, today, I will write words that perhaps would not otherwise be written, in the hope that in some small way they pay a tribute to the sacrifice of these Americans, and of the thousands of other Americans who paid the same price in service of our highest principles.

I expect that these words will hurt before they heal.  They need to be said anyway.

*   *   *

I have written lately quite a bit about what I don't believe.  You can find those entries if you are interested; I'm not going to draw attention to them today.  Today I will write about some things that I do believe.

I believe that our nation is exceptional.  Every other nation on earth is defined by race or ethnicity or language or religion, or by some combination of these.  We are different; there are Americans of all races, of all ethnicities, of all languages, of all religions.  We define ourselves by allegiance to certain principles:  equality before the law, due process within the law, democracy as the structure of the law.  These principles are so deeply ingrained in us that we support them reflexively, even when they do not necessarily serve our individual interests. It does not take much to be an American, and most importantly, it does not require birth as an American.  All that is really required is to accept these principles as we have come to understand them.

We take our nationality from our political system, which derives from characteristics within ourselves.  If I had to articulate a single characteristic of Americans that contributes most greatly to our political system, it is an amazing capacity for empathy.  We are simply brilliant at putting ourselves in others' shoes.  But while we usually think of empathy as a positive human characteristic, it is often an inherently selfish one, driven by the fear that if we do not act justly toward others, there may be a time when we need justice ourselves and find it unavailable.

In that sense, our political system, and thus our nation, is the perfect extension of who we are:  egalitarian individualists.  That's not a contradiction in terms.

Seeing the potential for justice and injustice, and fearing the latter, our forebears designed a Constitution that contains numerous safeguards against injustice:  the separation of powers, checks and balances, representative government, free and frequent elections, lifetime tenure for judges, specific and broad guarantees of rights, and the due process of law.  Over time, we have adjusted and refined these safeguards' structure, and added new safeguards, but the core remains recognizable and alive 226 years later.

We are not a perfect people, but we have always--often grudgingly, but always--tended toward these core ideals.  It took us a long time to get our house sorted out, and we still have some distance to travel on that point, but we have made the world better for our having existed.  The 20th century was the American Century because we made it so.  Twice in that century, the world was at war.  It would have been easy at that point to withdraw, protected as we were by oceans.  We spent the first three years of World War I on the sidelines, more or less, till a president who had campaigned on the slogan "he kept us out of war" brought us into it less than a year later.  But our presence was determinative to the war and influential on the peace that followed.  Our official entry into World War II came after the Japanese attack on our installation at Pearl Harbor--more on that later--but we were in it long before, providing material aid to Britain, France, and the Soviet Union against the Germans.  Again, our presence and leadership in that war was salvation for the world.

And after it, we rebuilt what we had destroyed, securing new alliances and extending the influence of our revolutionary ideas to Europe and Japan. 

And we held accountable those who had brought us past the brink--with real trials, with evidence and due process, and articulating a new idea, that human rights belong to all humans, and that aggressive war is antithetical to those rights.

I believe that we are exceptional because, and only when, we use our enormous power for the good of others.  We were exceptional in those days.

And I believe that we will be exceptional again one day.

But we are not today, and we have not been for the last 12 years.

*   *   *

Two thousand, four hundred two Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.  That is nearly as many as were killed on September 11, 2001.  The national mood shifted, and soon we were directly involved in a war that had been raging for more than two years by that point.  There was an element of revenge associated with our attitude.  My grandfather, who fought against the Japanese, still harbors some resentment for what was done; at 95, he probably doesn't have much time left to feel that resentment, and when World War II has receded from living memory, that will likely be it.

But the leadership focused our national energy on what became a national task:  winning the war, and thereby making the world safe for democracy to flourish in place of fascism.  President Roosevelt drew on our better selves to man (and woman) our forces, to build up the arsenal of democracy, to encourage us to sacrifice for the greater good.

I cannot help but draw a stark comparison.  After we were attacked on 9/11/01, our leaders' reaction was first to fix blame where it did not belong, to open for business a new surveillance and security state, and to ask no more of most Americans than to "go shopping."  I am certain that after Pearl Harbor, many Americans feared for their future, but we were lucky at that time to have leadership who stewarded us out of that fear into action and, ultimately, triumph.  The war provided catharsis and healing.

The leadership after 9/11 has used our fear against us.  It is one thing for the government to tell its citizens, after an attack, to "keep calm and carry on" in the very British phrase that is memetically popular these days.  It is quite another to keep us in a perpetual state of dread and worry.  That is what continual spying gets us.  That is what the security theater at the airport gets us.  That is what "shelter-in-place" advisories, issued after the Boston Marathon bombing, get us.

We are vulnerable to a government that keeps us in fear because of our capacity for empathy.  We can imagine ourselves in those towers, or on the plane that crashed at Shanksville, or on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

We can feel the searing heat.

We can imagine being forced to choose between dying in a collapsing building and dying from a jump from the 80th floor.

The national wound that day caused has scarred over.  We are tougher and ruder, more suspicious, more fearful.  But scarification is not healing.  We have an abscess, a deep infection hidden by our scars.  We are in pain and don't know why.

But I do know why, and now you do:  We have not been allowed to heal from the trauma.  True healing requires examination and cleansing of the wound.  It requires rehabilitation.  And, if I may depart from the metaphor for a moment, it requires a return to our better selves--the selves that weren't scared by the shadows of terrorism, the selves who were not terrorized by those who would hurt us, the selves who trusted in our principles.

We need to be told, on this day of all days, by a person of authority, that it is okay to let go of what happened, to accept it, and that we can free ourselves from fear's prison and be better for the world despite what happened.

We need to be told that it is not too late to absorb the blow and move forward.

We need for our leaders to stand up for principles other than protection.

We need for reason to triumph over fear. 

So much of who we are depends on it.

*   *   *

Eleven months before Pearl Harbor, a couple of weeks before his historic third inauguration, FDR gave his second most famous speech, now known as the "Four Freedoms" speech, which is now celebrated at the FDR Memorial on the National Mall.  He summarized these freedoms as follows: 

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
Today we cannot seem to secure these essential human freedoms even in our own borders.  Free speech and protest are met with police control and NSA wiretaps.  While the majority is free to worship the Christian God, religious minorities--especially Muslims--are frequently beset with regulation and repression.  Our economy has been allowed to stagnate, leaving behind massive unemployment with no effort to ameliorate its effects, even as billionaire bankers are propped up by zero-interest government loans and the freedom to commit fraud.  And, most of all, we live under a constant condition of fear.

I believe that one day we will fix this.  I believe in the irrepressible American spirit.  I believe in our better selves.  But we must act for it to come to pass.

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