September 11 and Beyond

Date: Fri, 28 Sep 2001 00:48:04 -0400 (EDT)

What to say about September 11? In the days immediately following the attack, it was difficult for me, as for so many of us, to move beyond the sheer shock and pain of so much death, of each life so precious lost. Since that terrible day, many people have said many things, and there is little I can add. But perhaps I can highlight some of themes of the past several weeks that may have considerable bearing on the how our nation responds to this terrible tragedy, and how we respond in our own lives.
The meaning of September 11 -- beyond the tremendous grief and shock and horror -- is still evolving, and will be for some time to come. What does it mean to America? When Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy reflected on the United States and where it was heading. "In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in." (To listen to his moving speech, which seems especially relevant in our difficult times, go to It is a question well worth asking today.
It is heartening to know that the overwhelming response of Americans to this tragedy has been a tremendous display of generosity and a willingness to help other people, strangers. In New York, three hundred firefighters are among the missing, because they chose to enter two flaming skyscrapers so that they could help other people get out. Meanwhile, firefighters, police officers, iron workers, and others worked tirelessly, risking their own safety, as they cleared away the rubble in search of survivors, and continued to do so even as the odds of finding survivors grew slimmer and slimmer.
Perhaps even more important is the way the nation has responded more generally. People rushed to donate blood. People contribute money to funds to help the survivors' families -- last Friday's television event alone raised $150 million. And the government discovered that when the need is great, we can find billions of dollars to meet that need -- at least $20 billion of the emergency spending passed after the attacks will be used to help New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania recover.
Americans saw pain, and rushed to help. Perhaps this was motivated in part by empathy, in part by a sense of responsibility towards fellow Americans who were victims of an attack that we felt was our tragedy too. While the grief we feel is tremendous, perhaps even overwhelming at times, this would be a good time -- at a time of enormous national unity and generosity -- to reflect on the good we can still do around the world.
There is great pain, and there are enormous disasters, that merit our generosity as we begin to reawaken to all the other things that still need to be done at home and around the world. When the terrorists attacked America, they attacked us, for we are part of America. When violence befalls humanity, the violence of disease and poverty and war, that violence strikes at us, for we are part of humanity. We could have been the victims that terrible Tuesday - but for fortune, we could so easily have been on those fateful flights, or in the World Trade Center. And but for fortune, we could suffer any number of the other grave misfortunes in this world.
Families of victims and those made temporarily homeless by the attack need America's generosity, but so do those who were homeless before the attack. Billions of dollars are needed for the recovery at home and to stave off more death and destruction from terrorist acts. As we begin to reawaken to the world, we should recognize again that billions of dollars are also needed to help prevent the deaths of tens of millions of people infected with and at risk of HIV/AIDS, and of people lacking clean water, or infected with malaria, and to help stop the destruction of societies that are losing huge portions of their population to AIDS, and are weakened by poverty and ignorance and fear. The world stood with the United States after the attack; now the United States has an unparalleled opportunity and renewed responsibility to stand with the world.
Maybe this will help in an effort against terrorism. It may lead some of the world's people to view America not as a force of arrogance that they perceive is bent on spreading its own might, a view that contributes to anti-American feelings, but as a force of good committed to doing what is right (even if we get it wrong sometimes). And if, in the words of Meron Benvenisti, former deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, our response is designed "in accordance with the need to deal with the rotting soil in which the hate, envy and frustration of the terrorists grew," then we will be building a world that is more secure for us all. Along with the many other fronts that will encompass America's response to terrorism, we have the chance to spearhead a renewed global effort to address human needs and human frustrations. If we do not embrace this opportunity, our response may prove dangerously incomplete and only short term. In the long run, this may be the most important area to address.
As it is necessary that we extend the humanity Americans have shown so beautifully at home to suffering people everywhere, many have correctly pointed out that we should be vigilant that we remain true to those ideals that have been the foundation of our nation. One ideal is freedom, and another is that we are a nation of many peoples, e pluribus unum. September 11 has presented a challenge to both.
Much of America's foreign policy, even if sometimes in name more than in practice, is founded on our support for freedom throughout the world. There is a danger that we will sacrifice some measure of our support for freedom in an effort to gain support for an international campaign against terrorism. The United States must continue to condemn abuses against those people who are unpopular with their governments, and not let those governments frame the debate by calling anyone who opposes them terrorists. In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States supported dangerous regimes and groups in the name of fighting the communist menace. We supported dictators and helped fund civil wars in Latin America and Africa, and as a result thousands of people were tortured and executed in Latin America, and the turmoil of those dictators and wars still plague many African nations.
We should take care not to repeat this mistake of condoning what is wrong. As a short survey by Human Rights Watch demonstrates, countries are already taking advantage of the new global effort against terrorism to crack down on dissenters within their countries, and to cast ongoing suppression as part of a war against terrorism. See Terrorists attack freedom, so it would be a sorry irony if, in the name of gaining support for a fight against terrorism, we condone actions that also attack freedom.
Another bedrock of our country is that we are a nation of immigrants. From many one. E pluribus unum. We have seen some people who reject this notion. In recent days, we have seen hundreds of acts of discrimination, many violent, perpetrated against Muslims and other people of Arabic or South Asian descent. The terrorists claim that America is hostile to Islam, and some in America seem to be doing their best to prove the terrorists right. I heard one Arab studying in the United States say that he did not feel welcome here. These are sad words for our country to hear.
Fortunately, most Americans reject this discrimination, and recognize that it tears at the heart of our nation. Even as these terrible acts of discrimination persist, another threat to our nation of immigrants has emerged. An anti-terrorism bill now in Congress threatens immigrants' basic liberties. Under the bill, the attorney general would have broad powers to indefinitely detain any non-citizen for security reasons. We live in a free nation, a nation of laws, and such a nation cannot steal people out of their life and place them behind bars without good reason. The bill, as currently formulated, lacks safeguards to ensure that the government has strong reason to detain those it asserts are security threats. The bill threatens to steal precious months and years of life from innocent people who might be detained under it. It may make immigrants feel a little less welcome in this nation of immigrants. And it may have ramifications on anti-terrorist laws around the world. For more information and to take action, please see an e-mail that I will forward to you momentarily.
We respond to September 11 not only as a nation, but also as individuals. That awful day reminded us how suddenly life can be taken us. It is a reminder of what we know already; car accidents, suddenly detected tumors, heart attacks, also quickly steal life away from us. But the huge number of lives lost so suddenly in such an unexpected way makes the fact that life is very fragile especially stark. The reminder seems to compel us to ask ourselves whether the lives we are living today give us meaning and fulfillment, because today is all we know for certain that we have.
As we think about our own lives, we cannot help but look to those people around us who contribute to that meaning and fulfillment. More than 6,000, possibly 7,000, lives were lost, but many tens of thousands of other lives were shattered. People whose friends and relatives perished Tuesday will forever have an empty spot in their hearts. Loving the people we love, caring for people for whom we care, being friends to our friends, all take on a renewed urgency. The old friend we can't seem to find time to call, the parent or brother or sister we can't seem to find time to visit -- we never know when these opportunities will slip suddenly away from us. As I write these words they seem almost unreal to me, but last Tuesday did not feel real either. I hope that the acts of violence that we have seen have been and will be vastly outnumbered by less visible but no less real acts of love and friendship.
Besides these reminders of the need to value that which is truly important, I think we also learned something about what is important to us. Watching victims' friends and relatives talk about their missing loved ones, we heard again and again that the missing person was generous and was always helping other people. Given only a moment in front of the camera, this is what people want the world to know about their loved ones. Through the tremendous evil and lack of respect for life that visited us on Tuesday, this sense of giving becomes a radiant ray of humanity. These responses demonstrate that helping others is among our most deeply held ideals about ourselves and, perhaps, by extension, about our nation.
I began this e-mail with a reference to Robert Kennedy's statement following Martin Luther King's assassination, and it is with this statement that I would like to end. There are many ways in which the tragedies of 1968 and 2001 are different. But at their heart, I think one of the biggest lessons of both of these tragedies is similar.
The horrible things that happen in this world cause us to ask why there is so much pain and why all that we have and care about can be taken from us so quickly? We come face to face with the basic truth of how fragile life is. We are sad, and we are scared. But then we find that we are not alone in our feelings, in our grief, in our fear. We realize that the pain of loss would not be so deep if our love of life were not so great. We see how much we need one another, and care about one another. Through love for one another, and this love of life that will not die, we can find the strength to forge ahead.
In his speech, Robert Kennedy quoted a Greek poet and dramatist, Aeschylus: "'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.' What we need in the United States . . . is love, and wisdom, and compassion towards one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer. . . ." These were good guides in 1968, and they are good guides today.
Thank you for allowing me to share with you.

Salaam (peace),


"I have only dreams: to build a better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much." -- Yitzhak Rabin

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