Reflections on September 11

Published on: October 22, 2001

We typically use this space to discuss court decisions or legal trends. But like everyone else, our thoughts have been directed elsewhere since September 11. The world really did change that day and it continues to change as the political, economic, and emotional aftershocks of that unimaginable and unimagined attack register in ways we are still trying to understand.

Economists are debating the long- and short-term impact on consumer confidence and economic growth. A recession that some thought we might avoid now seems inevitable. An economy built on mobility has been almost immobilized by a fear of flying that has grounded business travelers and tourists alike. Stock values have plummeted, unemployment rates have soared, and protecting the budget surplus is no longer the public policy priority it was just a few weeks ago. Deficit spending seems poised for a comeback.

Statistics provide the yardsticks we need to measure those economic impacts. But other changes, though more difficult to measure, may prove even more significant and long lasting in their effects.

The collapse of the twin towers that instantly redrew the New York skyline produced a no less dramatic reordering of personal priorities. Against the background of all those shattered lives and splintered dreams, making more money, winning another promotion, acquiring more clients, and closing new deals suddenly seemed less important than getting to soccer games, scheduling vacations, and making time for friends. The staggering loss of life forced many of us to examine the value of our own lives.

One professional football player said watching the heroic efforts of rescue workers made him question for the first time the value of his chosen profession. It’s not clear where that sort of self-examination will lead, but if it produces proportionately more firemen, policemen, teachers, and Peace Corps volunteers, and proportionately fewer investment bankers, consultants, and attorneys, that wouldn’t be entirely bad.   The terrorist attack also has made us look at our country in new ways. In the hours and days following the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, American flags sprouted by the thousands, from automobiles, houses, store windows, and lapels. Strangers wept together – around television screens and at memorial services – for people they didn’t’ know.

Charities collected more than $500 million for victims and their families in less than three weeks; blood banks overflowed with donors, and volunteers came from all over the country to aid in the recovery effort at “Ground Zero” – the site where the World Trade Center towers collapsed

From “Me” to “We”

A nation known for its commitment to special interests discovered that it had a common interest after all. In our shock and grief and anger, we revealed the humanity we share. The “me” generation rediscovered “we” – as in, “We the people of the United States of America.”

For the baby boomers who came of political age during the Viet Nam War, flag waving was not just a foreign concept but a faintly distasteful one, suggestive of the old-fashioned, discredited militarism they had spurned. Veterans of the anti-war protests lost the habit of being patriotic, and the generations behind them never acquired it. If people had patriotic thoughts, they didn’t express them, at least not very often, and hardly ever in public. World War II vets growing teary at the sight of a flag on Memorial Day seemed out of place – anachronistic and a little embarrassing in their responses to emotions we didn’t understand and with which we couldn’t identify.

For many of us, September 11 provided a crash course in patriotism. An oral surgeon described a “tough, older” patient who told him tearfully the day after the attack, “We fought World War II so this would never happen in the United States.” We understand those feelings a little better now; they no longer seem so far removed from our own.

As we sang songs many of us have not sung since childhood, if we’ve sung them at all, we discovered that we remembered the words – and believed them. America is beautiful; it is a land of the free and the brave. It is my country, and never so clearly as after those planes smashed into the twin towers and the Pentagon.

Patriotism is “in” again, and it feels good. When Dan Rather said that he could no longer sing or listen to the words to “America the Beautiful” again without experiencing an explosion of emotion, he expressed a sentiment many of us share. For the first time in a very long time in this country, we are singing from the same page with a harmony we haven’t often achieved, at least, not in recent memory. The terrorist attack that killed so many people and destroyed so much, didn’t just open our hearts and our wallets – it opened our eyes to the blessings we have, the values we share, and the threats we face.

A Powerful Force

These are heady emotions. They have the potential to bring us together, but they also have the power to sweep us away and deposit us in places we may not want to go. “My country,” is a healthy sentiment. “My country right or wrong” is not. We can stand firmly against terrorists and the countries that harbor them, as President Bush has exhorted. We can support a sustained war against terrorism. But we also can and should question how that war is to be fought. It should be possible to oppose terrorism without supporting every proposal for combating it. We can agree that the U.S. must respond firmly and aggressively to the September 11 attack, but we also should insist that the response be measured, reasoned, and effective, with justice, not vengeance, as the goal. We should be able to question policies without being deemed unpatriotic.  We can support government efforts to improve security; but we also should carefully balance the need to ensure safety and to protect civil rights. And we should recognize how easily the war against terrorism can become a vendetta against anyone who resembles terrorists, or our notion of what terrorists look like.

The incarceration of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the McCarthy-era pursuit of Communists and their “sympathizers” are not among America’s finest hours. We should keep that not so ancient history in mind as we seek ways to defeat terrorism without crushing the principles we are trying to protect.

There are few among us who would not sacrifice a fortune, or the promise of acquiring one, in order to turn back the clock and erase what happened on September 11. We can’t rewrite history, but we can determine the way history will be written by the actions we take in the days ahead — by what we do and don’t do; by what we feel and by the ways in which we act on those feelings.

We can’t undo the terrorist attack, but we can channel the torrent of emotions it unleashed to make us stronger as individuals and as a country. And we can say with new meaning, with a renewed sense of purpose, and with deeper understanding, “God bless America.”