Ten years ago today, it was a pleasant late summer/early autumn morning when news spread that the U.S. had suffered a coordinated terrorist attack. More than 3,000 people of all races, creeds, and nationalities died, and those of us watching the tragic scene unfold on television were awash in shock and grief.
I left work early that day to check on family and friends in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Although I didn’t know any of the victims personally, I later learned that some friends were close to some of the slain. My heart goes out to all of them, as well as to the U.S. troops and their families who have also sacrificed so much for our country. A new generation has learned the value of patriotism.
Since then, we have endured persistent economic turmoil, wars in the Middle East, and political divisiveness, as well as other natural and manmade disasters. The U.S. military has eliminated Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but it is still engaged in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and regimes in Iran and North Korea are still dangerous. The outcomes of civil unrest in much of the developing world are uncertain, and the march of progress seems less inevitable.
I’ve visited Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon, and I hope that everyone can set aside time to remember the fallen and again look past our differences to our common, frail, and precious humanity. Robust debate over consequences, policy goals, and the means of attaining them is important, but so is finding consensus.
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban haven’t proved to be the existential threat or some clash of civilizations between the uniquely democratic West and monolithically despotic East that some have feared. They’re still around, though, and they’re still oppressive, especially to women and non-Islamists. In Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and Basra, the U.S. and its allies learned that no one is immune to the dehumanizing effects of war and that a few undisciplined people can hurt our morale at home and international moral standing.
During the Cold War and beyond, the U.S. successfully pursued policies of containment and engagement with Russia and China rather than direct and potentially unwinnable conflict. I think that religious fundamentalism and tribal or ideological extremism are bad no matter where they occur, whether it’s in the so-called Holy Land or here. Many thousands of people have died in the Middle East, perpetuating hatreds.
I agree with observers who have noted that during the Great Depression, World War II, and even the Vietnam War, many Americans felt a connection between their sacrifices and the effort to turn things around that we don’t today. Just as most people couldn’t predict the Internet boom of the turn of the century, so is it hard now to see a brighter future.
In the ongoing recession that followed 9/11, the U.S., Europe, and Japan have struggled, and domestic discourse has again become polarized. Janice and I have been laid off a few times between us. Despite the best (and worst) efforts of two administrations, Congress, and Wall Street, I think that we have yet to find a way back to prosperity for all. The boom-bust cycle and postindustrial economy may be beyond their control.
Are we safer than a decade ago? I think we’re at least more aware of the dangers. Can we return to greatness? I believe that the U.S. still has many strengths, including a diverse population, increasing tolerance, and underestimated resilience and ingenuity. Can the world find peace? I still hope so, if we keep striving for economic fairness, social justice, and free and respectful discourse among all peoples.