For those of us under a certain age, we grew up hearing our elders talk of
the assassination of John Kennedy and how everyone could remember exactly where
they were when they got the news. The events of 9/11 were somewhat
different, because we learned the awful truth as the morning went on, but the
impact was the same. No one who was old enough to understand what happened
will ever forget it. It will in many respects define our era.
Understanding it and responding correctly is a different issue.
When someone asked him whether the French Revolution was a success or not,
Chairman Mao said something like we'll have to wait and see. Chances are we'll
have to wait a long time to fully understand as well.
The facts of 9/11 are pretty clear, unless you are a conspiracy
theorist: Al Qaeda recruited, trained and financed the hijackers,
who managed to commandeer and fly two jets into the World Trade Center towers
and one into the Pentagon. The fourth plane, which was reportedly headed
for either the Congress or the White House, was heroically taken down by
passengers, who learned of what had happened with the other jets and forced the
plane down in a Pennsylvania field.
It's also clear that the hijackings could have been prevented. Enough
people were suspicious - remember the memo the FBI agent filed warning of the
flight school students? - that, had things been more coordinated, it could have
However, they weren't stopped, and 9/11 joined the Kennedy assassination and
Pearl Harbor as great American traumas.
The situation has been pretty thoroughly investigated by now, and one hopes
that the immediate lessons have been learned even as many will be necessarily
left to history and a later perspective to explain.
But there are two things which we'd hope could grow out of this. First,
a cold-eyed understanding that we live with a new sort of threat, one which is
not going away anytime soon and which requires permanent vigilance. That
seems to have taken root, even if we at times seem to be trying to close our
eyes and wish it away.
And secondly, that we should refuse to live in permanent fear. That
unfortunately hasn't happened yet.
Clearly, there are enormous dangers. The fact that Al Qaeda, and other
Islamic groups which target the U.S. and the West, are actively seeking nuclear
weapons and other forms of mass destruction, is generally understood and cannot
be minimized or dismissed. We have to realize that the open nature of our
society and our complex economy presents thousands of potential targets and that
we will live in danger.
But in spite of that, we cannot sacrifice who we are to people like this, and
we surrender the best parts of our character to terror at our own peril.
In the face of this sort of challenge, we have to remember not just who we
are but who we want to be as well - the last, best hope of mankind, as Abraham
Lincoln put it. He wasn't referring to Americans specifically but rather
to American ideals.
Those who would kill us brag that they love death more than we
love life. But that's not true.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln said:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicateâwe can not
consecrateâwe can not hallowâthis ground. The brave men, living and dead,
who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or
detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but
it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be
dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far
so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task
remaining before us â that from these honored dead we take increased
devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion
â that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain
â that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom â and
that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish
from the earth."
So we should say about the brave men and women of United 93, who
answered the death-lovers more eloquently than anyone could have ever
imagined. So, too, we should say about the brave men and women who stared
up at the World Trade Center before going in to near-certain death in an attempt
to save innocent lives. Who among us could be so strong?
Nothing could consecrate the field outside of Shanksville,
Pennsylvania, more than what the passengers on United 93 did, and nothing could
be a finer counterpoint to the world into which we were forced five years