Sept. 11, 2011: Ten Years After the Attacks
Oh, how that one day transformed the past decade!
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, compelled Americans to embrace and nurture their nation's ideals over the past 10 years. They came to see that the long flowering of those ideals - liberty, openness, democracy, and hope - were what terrorists resented - and must be defended. Otherwise, humanity could not continue its steady progress toward bringing forth the perfection and innocence that lies within it.
This task was not for the impatient or self-seeking. Like the "great generation" of World War II or the defenders of freedom in the cold war, Americans had to rise above daily concerns to make sacrifices, help their communities, cope with the economic toll, and be resolute for years. It was the mark of a new generation.
The first battle was not against the masterminds of the attacks or the nations that supported them, but against rage and a public desire for retaliation and vengeance. The grief felt for the thousands of civilians killed quickly turned into anger, but that destructive emotion had to be transformed into a reasoned and sustainable public enterprise against terrorism and for universal ideals. We learned as a nation that heroes need to stand for something as well as against something.
Most of all, Americans had to learn how to avoid ripping themselves apart in trying to assign blame for the lack of security on that day of the surprise plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
They were able to do that by reinforcing their strong sense of community, uniting as one, reinvigorating their patriotism, and seeking strength in prayer, song, and candlelight vigils.
The bonding was deep-felt, long after the shock of the tragedy wore off. People discovered new reservoirs of compassion and generosity, and a strong compulsion to restore civility because civility had been so severely challenged.
People volunteered more, donated more, acted more kindly in public, and embraced the many people who safeguard society, from firefighters to police to Air Force pilots. They wanted to do something to roll back the dark.
They also learned that Americans cannot live in ignorance of what goes on in the rest of the world. A global terrorism network had been created that hid in the shadows of many countries, one that could strike with impunity anywhere in the United States. Reading about history and world events became a necessity.
The US itself had to redefine and realign its role in the world, just as it did for the cold war. Adrift in its foreign policy for the decade after the cold war, the US finally realized that it couldn't retreat into a cocoon, that its status as the sole superpower made it both a target of resentment and responsible for keeping the world safe from the danger of terrorism. The US could not act unilaterally and needed to win more countries to its side.
Its military and intelligence agencies, too, had to be transformed. They were up against an enemy more fearless than they were, one that saw virtue in self-destruction. No longer were there traditional battlefields. American civilians had become the front line of conflict. To win, the US military had to take the battle to the terrorists' nests.
The rules of military and political engagement shifted. A war on terrorism could not be fought just with computer screens and with bombs dropped from 15,000 feet. Spies were given more license in finding and stopping terrorists. Military tactics became more ruthless. Like the first war the US fought - against the Barbary pirates, lasting 15 years - a war on terrorism would take years.
Americans also had to decide - using their democracy - on how much of their freedom and civil rights they would relinquish in order to defend themselves against more terrorist attacks. Air passengers were more willing to spend extra time at airports being checked by security personnel. But Congress had a difficult debate on whether to give federal agents more power to tap computers and telephones, and detain terrorist suspects. Border security was severely tightened, and new limits set on the flow of immigrants.
The trade-offs were immense. Why give up liberty to defend liberty? Or was it necessary to keep terrorists out of the US by giving up a few civil rights?
During times of challenge, it was important not to undercut the ideals of the US and to keep a moral high ground. Congress ended up walking a fine line between a heavy-handed state and freedom, promising to roll back the new security measures once the threat ended.
After all, the democratic world was moved to defend itself against undemocratic forces, forces that seemed to rise out of a militant interpretation of Islam but were grounded in historic grievances of Arab peoples.
Dealing with those grievances became a quiet but major agenda item for the US. Many Arabs in the Middle East felt left out of the economic progress of the West, and were resentful of the imposition of many Western ways in their traditional societies. Technologies from satellite TV to cellphones had only served to build up the feeling of being dominated by the West.
The result was a steady supply of young men eager to strike out at the West in an international jihad, using modern technology against modern societies. Ending that terrorism meant helping Arab nations come to terms with this rebellion of radical Islamists.
Americans learned to embrace the Islamic followers in their midst, rather than the way the Japanese-Americans were treated during World War II. The US government took on a new Middle East policy that was both tough but supportive. Muslims, too, rose up and spoke out more forcefully against the militants who abused their religion. They joined the war on terrorism.
The US media learned during the crisis that Americans wanted coverage that unites, not divides them - that the media have an central role in defining how society sees itself and whether it moves toward conflict or not.
The entertainment industry, too, shifted gears, realizing that its violent-action products, especially disaster movies and video game wars, created an mental environment for violence.
President Bush called the terrorist attacks "the first act of war on America in the 21st century." They weren't just attacks on America, but on its ideals and its civilization. Americans saw that their security didn't just lie in the absence of the terrorist danger, but in affirming all that was good about their country. "Out of the rubble and ash and ugliness," Mr. Bush said at the bombing site in New York, "there's a lot of good."
The attacks served to make Americans more grateful for what they already have and for the opportunities to bring more good into the world. The economy rebounded and New York rebuilt itself. Fighting terrorists took courage and sacrifice, but so did preserving high ideals.
The past decade has seen tremendous growth for the US, a deeper probing of its meaning for both Americans and the world.
Let's pray that the lessons also include the idea that the US doesn't always need adversity and war to help it grow as a nation.