Another Reflection on 9/11

I started this piece in O’Hare Airport. ORD was pretty normal yesterday. Traffic was a bit lighter at the American terminal, but not much. That’s good. The light of a full moon illuminated the skyline below on a beautiful clear flight. Still, my wife was somewhat relieved to get my text that the flight had landed.

There’s not much new to say about 9/11, maybe history’s most covered atrocity. We must remember the 3,000 beautiful people were murdered that day. We must also remember the heroism of so many first-responders—police, fire fighters, and ordinary people who did their part to help. Bill Clinton just gave a beautiful speech commemorating the heroism of passengers on United Flight 93. The words of John 15:13 remain tough to beat: There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.

On twitter, Atul Gawande today provided reminiscences from medical personnel readying themselves to help ten years ago. In the wake of tragedy, tens of thousands of health care workers, fire fighters, police officers, iron workers, social workers, air traffic controllers, and others worked with quiet professionalism to help survivors, to ground America’s air fleet, to provide security against future threats, to comfort the bereaved. My own step-sister was an EMT at the time in northern New Jersey. She waited in a phalanx of ambulances ready to evacuate the wounded. Sadly, their services weren’t needed.

Today is an especially sad day because America was so rattled by the 9/11 atrocity, because to some degree we lost our way. Given a real whiff of fear, we proved willing to violate constitutional principles we might previously have assumed were bedrock. Of course we became embroiled in an Iraqi adventure that proved to be a human and strategic catastrophe for everyone involved. Bin Laden is now dead. That needed to happen. I hope this frees us, politically and psychically, to end the declared, apocalyptic, global war on terror, which was never the right way to think about the threats we face.

At a human level, I’m surprisingly saddened by the sight of President George W. Bush. He’s such a tragic figure. His presidency so diminished our nation, at home and abroad. I believe, perhaps over-generously, that “compassionate conservatism” was more than a campaign trope. Efforts such as PEPFAR were of genuine value. Had he not been personally rattled by the horrors of 9/11, had Bin Laden not delivered Bush an artificial, partisan mandate, the Bush 43 presidency might have played out more effectively, more honorably. We’ll never know.

I try to imagine his predicament ten years ago. About this time, he was aboard Air Force One, somewhere over the Midwest, trying to pierce through the confusion to determine what the hell had just happened, wondering what other attacks were to come, and what he needed to be doing to reassure the country in a moment of national trauma and potential peril. History will record that he was brave in the immediate moment, but that he ultimately failed his country and himself. I think he realized this himself. I think it’s time to forgive the man, even as we firmly repudiate just about every one of his policies.

It’s still too soon to tell whether the experience of 9/11 will enlarge or diminish our nation. I hope our memories of trauma, heroism, and loss—and, yes, our subsequent mistakes and misdeeds related to that day—will increase our empathy for so many others who endure natural and man-made catastrophes across the globe.

Over much of the inhabitable world’s surface, people struggle with famine, poverty, and disease. Right now, millions of Pakistanis are facing a devastating flood. Every day, millions of people live in fear or seek revenge as the result of genocide, terrorism, or war. I hope it enlarges our appreciation of the difficulties experienced by people around the world who have hurt and have been hurt in deadly group conflicts. In our diplomacy, we ask others—Israelis and Palestinians, for instance—to display great resilience and restraint in resolving their most difficult disputes. Ten years ago today, we learned something about how difficult this can be.

Many Americans were touched by the response of people across the world, who showed up in force at Ground Zero and elsewhere after 9/11 to help. Are we there for others in their hour of need, when they most need help? Sometimes we are, not often enough. There are many Ground Zeroes in this world. We need to help each other. That’s the clearest lesson from 9/11.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.