Even now, five years later, I find it hard to look at the pictures. Towers of ash, figures in windows, shadows of planes, jagged shards of a place where once I entertained friends and colleagues at the very top, Windows on the World, a name that said it all about the hubris and power of the World Trade Center.
That morning thousands of ordinary people in the New York and Washington regions got up, kissed the family goodbye, and went to work. They wore the uniforms of their trades: the whites of kitchen workers on top of the world, the stylish cuts of New York’s day traders and investment bankers, the brass of uniforms at the Pentagon, the heavy gear of firefighters, the relaxed fit of people flying across the country. Nearly 3,000 never came home again. Tens of thousands still bear the wounds, physical and emotional. Millions still live with the vague fear that it could happen again, fed by the constant reminders in airports and street corners and daily headlines of some new suspicion. Even more millions live with the aftermath, the amalgamation of violence and conflict and death and destruction that marches across Iraq and Afghanistan and so many other places under the tattered banner of the War on Terror.
September 11 surely has become one of the most complex and difficult of all days on our calendar of remembrances. The date does not really commemorate something that happened in the past, because the events of that day in 2001 triggered still-unfolding reactions that are likely to continue for many years. The reaction of this nation to the unprecedented attack on our very shores continues to be a source of both unity and divisiveness — few Americans want to say that we should have done nothing in response, but increasing numbers are willing to express discomfort, if not outright disagreement, with the tactics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have come to accept, however begrudingly, the curtailments on personal freedom in public places — the airport discomforts being the most egregious, but other forms of surveillance and intrusion as well. Despite some political rhetoric, there’s really no huge public outcry over federal intrusion into records of our use of telephones and libraries and bookstores and federal financial aid and who-knows-what-else. If they catch the bad guys, we’ll be happy — or so we think, until it happens again.
September 11 introduced a whole new concept of war, not nation against nation, but civilization against outlaws. Yes, some nations may harbor and encourage the criminals, but in fact, terrorists have no loyalties except to their own ideologies. That’s what makes them so dangerous and difficult to capture. They are criminals, and like domestic criminals on our streets, they defy eradication; we can only hope for some serious controls.
In exercising those controls, this nation and all nations must consider the balance between catching the criminals and destroying the very freedoms we are trying to protect. I know almost nothing about waging war, but I know a little bit about defending civil liberties. As a nation we need to insist on robust security, yes — security for our persons and property, to be sure, but also security for our freedoms, which are the whole point of this beautiful nation. We cannot let the ultimate legacy of September 11 be the continuing erosion of freedom in a nation founded to ensure liberty and justice for all.
The headlines frequently remind me of a few lines in a play by Robert Bolt about St. Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons. More was having an argument with his son-in-law Richard Roper about the extent to which law should be set aside to prevent evil, in this case, to catch the man who would ultimately betray Thomas More with false testimony. Roper said he’d cut down every law in England to catch the devil. More exclaimed, “Oh, and when the last law was down, and the devil turned on you, where would you hide, Roper, all the laws being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man’s laws not God’s, and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think that you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the devil the benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake.”
Later, when King Henry VIII tried to change the laws on marriage so that he could divorce his wife and marry another, then-Chancellor Thomas More resisted, refused to go along with the King’s desire to shape the law for himself, and ultimately accepted execution rather than abandonment of his religious and moral beliefs.
On September 11, we remember those who died. We reaffirm our commitment as citizens of the United States to defend our freedom and way of life, the rule of law and the meaning of true justice, which is not vengeance. We reaffirm our pledge as citizens of the world to work for justice and peace for all people. We do not honor this day by indulging a sense of victimhood or thirst for revenge. We honor those who died by doing all that we can to strengthen our way of life. Education continues to be the most powerful weapon we have to fight ignorance and fear, to illuminate rights and justice, to sustain hope through the dark days of war and terror.