“I hear you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” President George W. Bush, September 2001
And, true to his word – our word – they did. Boy did they. For there is nothing we cannot do as a country, united and with one purpose, at peace with ourselves and with our place in history. Messy and sometimes with multiple personalities and often with PTSD from a world which moves too quickly, which demands too much and so often gives so little in return. But Americans first, Americans last – Americans after all.
I watch this speech every year – and I remember walking down the leafy lanes of Waltham in the fall, wind somewhat crisp and perhaps the first lazy leaves having already fallen from the trees above – their work for the year done. Going to class; graduate school, preparing as so many good Americans have over the years for service to our country. For me, it would involve great sacrifice; proving my love for my home by leaving her for foreign lands. Keeping the mayhem at bay, showing there is a better way; helping those in need, fighting those who are wrong. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas – smart people know they are one and the same thing. What I did not comprehend in that split-second before the eyes of myself and a dozen of my friends from Ethiopia and Eritrea and Japan and Bhutan watched the fall of a tower, then two, was that the “End of History” had just itself ended. It could not stand up against 19 evil men who had decided to weaponize public transportation. That itself is worth some thought. In that minute, more than 3000 were killed; with the silent number creeping ever higher, 10,000 new cancer cases among New York residents. Thousands of soldiers killed or wounded on the battlefields. Humanitarian workers dying of car accidents and disease.
We are sometimes naïve in our goodness – Americans are. It’s part of the nature of our life lived in a free society; part of our ‘social contract’ in which we each seek out our own self-interest through hard work and discipline and thrift, understanding that the true meaning of freedom is freedom from our vices and our own raging passions; and in that understanding we reap a bounty that has spilled over to build the greatest society the world has ever known. Not by invasions, pillaging and theft; but the tremendous abundance of productively free men giving back through their love of themselves, their country and each other. We forget, in this, that these are not values often shared. Communists and socialists see the world in shades of green; envy and bitterness and oppression. Islamists see uniformity under their faith as the only legitimate expression of communalism and violence as their only method of sway. Totalitarians of all stripes looking to control others, but above all us – because we are the great prize – the redoubtable American spirit brought to heel.
And though we are naïve – we are also somehow realist, sharp and hard in our understanding of the fact that our land will not be protected through abandon or great oceans become suddenly small. That we have to protect it – actively and with the full power of our imaginations.
Since that fateful day I have found myself on many foreign shores – often in lands themselves shaken by terrorism – painstakingly making the case for freedom in the minds of men. Pakistan and Venezuela and Uganda and Mali. I have written novels about the different attempts of people to find a better way than ours (and the ensuing mess); I have delivered speeches and made campaign calls and written and written and written some more. I have been in terrorist attacks; car accidents; Ebola quarantined; assaulted and held against my will and spent more than one sleepless night sorrowing for what I have seen and worrying about what comes next. 17 years – a fair exchange for the sacrifice of so many of my fellow Americans? Perhaps.
America is going through a bit of a stressful moment. It is ironically (or perhaps not so) product of that age old argument about the role of a state and of violence in the construction of free societies. We have lost our unity and in so doing we have lost our common culture, and our resolve – fighting instead over the club with which we presume to beat each other into submission. I believe we will find it again – our resolve – and today is a great day to remind ourselves that we are all Americans, that we are the most prosperous society that has ever lived, where even our poor are at the top of the world order (I should know, for I have been among the poor), and be grateful.
So today, when you tweet or comment on FB or stop by a colleague’s desk who you know thinks differently to jibe her about something some politician said, why don’t you instead say something nice. Tweet something nice. Stop to help a stranger. Honor the thousands of our dead; and maybe – just maybe – it will extend, today into tomorrow and onward. Isn’t that what those who perished would want?