The four coordinated hijackings, resulting in three deliberate attacks and one downed passenger jet, took 2,977 innocent lives and sowed fear and dismay across the world. They were acts of unconscionable evil intended to not only harm innocents and terrify the wider population, but to destabilize American democracy itself, and derail a people’s journey through history, possibly to erode its most virtuous contributions.
It was a clear, sunny morning and the first plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center had sparked a sustained global news flash, bringing hundreds of millions of eyes to the television footage. There was confusion and disbelief, and just as it was becoming clear there must have been a devastating loss of life, a massive fireball engulfed the top half of the South Tower, clearly signaling a deliberate terrorist attack was underway.
Less than 2 minutes later, the White House chief of staff told the president, then in a public event with schoolchildren, that “America is under attack.” A third plane flew into the Pentagon, headquarters of the US Dept. of Defense, while the fourth crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers reportedly made a fateful and heroic decision to rush the cockpit and take back the plane from the hijackers.
In the days after the attacks, it was often said such heinous acts would not be allowed to change our open, democratic culture or to reduce our commitment to moral leadership in the world. Pres. Bush made a visible, conscious effort to ask that no one treat Muslims or people of Arabic origin or descent, as anything other than members of an open, democratic society, as neighbors and possibly as victims, of the attacks.
But in the months and years that followed, the pressures and temptations inherent in legislating and prosecuting the war on terror drew the US federal government into planning and implementing policies that marked an appreciable and concerning detour away from many of our most cherished shared principles.
We have suffered, in the aftermath of the attacks, fully a decade of war. From the standpoint of an idealist democracy, or of just war theory, from the standpoint of a civilization committed to peaceful coexistence and negotiated outcomes, war is failure. It is the failure of peace, of the institutions of peaceful negotiation; it is the threat of a descent into chaos. War tests the moral fiber of a society more than any other experience.
In one of the most emotional and solemn of the speeches given to commemorate the legacy of those lost, Vice President Joseph Biden noted that “Never before in our history, has America asked so much over such a sustained period of an all volunteer force. I can say without fear of contradiction or being accused of exaggeration that the 9/11 generation ranks among the greatest our nation has ever produced.”
He spoke of 4,478 “fallen angels” who died in Iraq, another 1,648 who gave their lives in Afghanistan, over ten years, many of them in recent weeks, and the more than 40,000 wounded in both wars. Biden has visited the wounded soldiers many times, and said “I am awed not only by their capability, but by their sacrifices, today and every day.”
To this day, military strategists disagree about whether going to war as a response was a major strategic blunder. It was important, and positive, to oust the Taliban from power, to end the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein, but the unity and the worldwide human fabric of sympathy that grew immediately after the 9/11 attacks bled away as a politics of division and confrontation took hold.
Some professional politicians deliberately adopted the attacks as a “wedge issue”, and sought to paint rivals to their political philosophy or to their job security as enemies of the state. A naturally occurring sense of democratic, civic unity was replaced by a push for ideological uniformity. Many Americans began to feel, for the first time in their lives, as if dissent, or even critical thinking, was not welcome in the public discourse.
The very idea of engaged citizenship was challenged by a prevailing attitude of hardline politics, and for many, fear and suspicion. In retrospect, it may have been possible to depose the Taliban and to counter Al Qaeda, without ever going to war in Iraq, without adopting interrogation techniques borrowed from Cambodian death camps, and without giving in to the suspicion that due process was somehow a risky departure from the best service of justice in a free society.
In retrospect, there may have been better ways to channel the collective emotional upheaval that followed the attacks. Historians were already talking of how quickly the political capital of the moment was “squandered”, as less than two years after the attacks, an aggressive, unilateralist drive had totally overtaken American foreign policy. There was, for several years, a great risk that American democracy would be forever changed, and many of its most vital ideals eroded.
But today, in northern Virginia, Vice President Biden reminded us of something else: the attackers misunderstood the nature of the event they had planned and its likely impact on the nation they were targeting. While the risk was there that our culture could be comprehensively destabilized by the grief and anger that follow such an event, Biden suggested we were ultimately protected against that deviation by something Al Qaeda may never have understood:
With the fully restored Pentagon behind him, Biden intoned: “The true source of American power does not lie within that building, because as Americans, we draw our strength from the rich tapestry of our people.” He added that “The true legacy of 9/11 is that our spirit is mightier, the bonds that unite us are thicker, and the resolve is firmer than the millions of tons of limestone and concrete that make up that great edifice behind me.”
Biden explained the miscalculation of a small group of extremists who “never imagined” that the killing of 3,000 people would inspire 3,000,000 to volunteer for military service, to strengthen and defend a population of over 300,000,000. He spoke of the “sleeping giant” that was awakened by the shock and horror of the attacks. He was speaking not of a will to violence or retaliation, but of a spirit of aid to one’s fellow citizens.
In the hours after the attacks on New York City, a fleet of ferries, fishing boats, tug boats, small craft, commercial vessels and patrol boats, spontaneously gathered around lower Manhattan. The United States Coast Guard then sent out a message to “all available boats” to “report to Governor’s Island”. Hundreds of boats converged on the city to assist in the evacuation, arriving at what witnesses describe as astonishing speed.
After the North Tower collapsed into its footprint, engulfing lower Manhattan in a cloud of toxic dust, heat, smoke and debris, tens of thousands of evacuees—some injured, some in shock, many hysterical with panic, some just acting in service of those around them—were flooding the waterfront. Some were jumping into the water, despite the heavy boat traffic, desperate to get off the island and if possible swim to safety.
In what is now referred to as the great Manhattan “boatlift”, nearly 500,000 civilian refugees were evacuated in just nine hours. It was the largest evacuation by sea in history. By comparison, the legendary military evacuation of Dunkirk, during some of the darkest days of World War II, evacuated 350,000 French and British soldiers from France to Britain.
The great Manhattan boatlift was possible because conscientious citizen volunteers from across the region shot into action, heading into the unknowable dangers of an unprecedented disaster zone, risking their lives and livelihoods to help total strangers in desperate need. This was emblematic of a society infused with a strong sense of public trust and civic responsibility, where citizenship and shared destiny are implicit in our sense of who we are.
Ten years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we have seen a spiritual recovery, in which people recognize that the values of such a society cannot be cast aside for any temporary sense of security. Our politics have seen a reversal, in which an unprecedented number of people voted, in 2008, for a politics of unity and civic engagement. And the hotly contested political campaigns have continued, with fevered disagreement over policy and ideology, but we can, perhaps say, that the freedom to disagree so vehemently is a celebration of the virtues of a free and open society.
Vice President Biden said to the families of victims today, “My prayer for you is that ten years later when you think of them, ten years later when you think of them, that it brings a smile to your lips instead of a pain in your heart.” There are many ways in which the legacy of the 9/11 attacks has long since been reclaimed from both the terrorists and the hardliners, and has come to inspire a commitment to service and shared responsibility.
Speaking of the bond between her family and the family of her brother’s great friend, coworker and fellow victim of the 9/11 attacks, Debra Epps today said, at the opening of the World Trade Center’s new 9/11 Memorial park, that the tragedy had brought the lesson that “People really do catch you, when you fall. It’s been a blessing.”
There are societies where unity in service of the civic space and one’s fellow citizens is a rare, if not unthinkable eventuality, and there are societies that are strong because free people naturally and voluntarily engage with each other with a sense of holding the civic space in trust, with a sense of commitment to the virtues and the vulnerabilities of their common humanity.
Ten years after the attacks of 9/11, the United States has been through many choices, many complexes of complicating choices, in response to the attacks. Many of those choices were controversial, and many have been reversed. Many curbs on civil liberties are still in place, and top officials disagree vehemently about whether there needs to be a trade-off between commitment to Constitutional protections of civil liberties and security.
Now, we enter a new period, in which withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan is already underway, a sometimes clumsy and always complicated process of nation-building is giving way to remote security actions, forceful “smart diplomacy” and a cooperative effort to prevent civil war in both countries. Osama bin Laden, and a number of “second-in-command” and “third-in-command” Al Qaeda operatives have been killed.
Some say the struggle against militant groups with “global reach” may be entering a more conscious deliberative phase, where the liberty-security tradeoff is not seen as being so economical. There is a hunger for reviving a less militaristic civic space, in which the cooperative voluntary citizenship of free people is the strength and the hope of a great democracy, in which the value of the service of millions of volunteers can be truly honored as an expression of their selflessness.
9/11 should, after this 10th anniversary, and in the aftermath of the deviation from and restoration of core values that we have undergone, become a national day of solemn recognition, collaborative restoration, and an affirmation of our civic space, in which citizenship is a sacred trust and human interest in the principal goal of our activity. It should be a day of national reflection and of the reaffirmation of the value of an open, democratic and voluntary civic space.
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Originally published, Sept. 11, 2011, at Independents of Principle