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Who Are We After 9-11?

Any number of speakers and writers, myself certainly included, have talked about the various things we need to do to make our country safer from terrorist attacks. We’ve also sung the praises of rescue and relief workers and of various leaders during the time of crisis.

Other countries of suffered greater losses proportionally than we did, but I’ve learned that one cannot compare one type of grief and loss with another. Besides the grief and the loss, the attacks of 9/11 made us feel vulnerable. I didn’t lose anyone I knew personally, so there is a bit of distance, but in the time immediately after the attacks we were united as a nation in a way very rarely seen.

There’s a question that I think is more important than just how safe we are, how we will prevent such attacks in the future, and the general strategy of the war on terror. In what ways has 9/11 changes us as a nation and as people?

An individual who goes through tragedy, loss, or extreme hardship may come out of it stronger and as a better person. He or she will undoubtedly come out changed, but that change can be for the better.

But it is also possible for a person to come out changed for the worse.

  • Fear can grip one’s life, so that all focus is on preventing any such tragedy again. A parent who loses a child can constrict the lives of her other children so that there is as little risk as possible of a repetition.
  • Anger can take over, so that revenge is the only goal, and one can no longer deal reasonably with people who are related in any way to the cause of the tragedy.
  • Resentment can poison one’s mind, so that one cannot see clearly what needs to be done.
  • One can lose all sense of balance, resulting in a continued life of misery

I think a nation or a group of people have many of the same options. What will you become as a result of what has happened? This question goes far beyond the immediate response to danger. I’m not chiding anyone for responding to danger. My own objections to the war in Iraq do not result from a conviction that we shouldn’t respond, but rather than Iraq was the wrong place and time for it.

But there are other responses that I think we need to look at. About a year after the 9/11 attacks I visited my brother. I flew into Buffalo and took a taxi. The driver was a Sikh, wearing the traditional headgear. I asked him how it was for him right after the attacks. I recognized he was a Sikh, but was he mistaken for a Muslim (or Arab, unfortunately the same thing in some people’s eyes) and was he in any danger. He told me that he had to abandon the traditional headgear and wear a much smaller and less obvious head covering after the attacks, because he was taunted and had been in danger.

Now it’s unrealistic to expect that there won’t be a minority of people who will react in inappropriate ways, often because they are already filled with rage and hate for other reasons. The major event simply provides them with an excuse to be who they are anyhow.

We still have a certain strong tradition of freedom. It has been weakened by attacks from various directions. I don’t give either major party a “pass” on this issue. Constitutional freedoms are up for grabs when people are afraid. The one thing a politician can’t survive is appearing soft on terrorism.

I think that is behind Obama’s vote for the FISA bill, a tragedy in my view, and the Republican sneers about making sure terrorists are read their rights.

Those are both the result of fear, and they do not do us any credit as a people. In particular I was struck by the phrasing of “reading terrorists their rights.” The fact is that we don’t read “criminals” their rights, we read “people” their rights. Those people may be criminals, but they have rights so that we can determine whether they truly are criminals. People have rights so that we can accurately determine whether they are also terrorists.

This idea of restricting the government from arbitrarily determining who is good and who is bad and acting on it without accountability is deeply enshrined in our constitution, and derives many of its elements from common law that goes much further back. There is no crime that is so heinous that we should punish an innocent person for it. The very idea that we would determine arbitrarily prior to any process just what sort of person an individual is should strike terror to our hearts.

It’s quite possible for us to respond to external threats in such a way that we become our own worst enemies. Will we live in fear, or will we make a stand that says that no matter what external terror puts us through we will remain who we are?

There will be freedoms and conveniences we must give up. We must be prepared for more security at airports (I actually wish it was more vigorous than it is), and for more scrutiny when entering or leaving the country. There are justifiable shortcuts that are necessary. While I oppose FISA as passed, there is certainly a need for wiretapping as part of our security efforts.

I also don’t think this is a Republican or Democratic issue. If we had had a Democratic president I suspect very similar things would have happened. It’s the result of being on the hot seat, which is not so easy, despite the fluency of some of us who criticize!

But I think we need to reflect beyond remembering the loss and remembering the sorrow, and get a very clear vision of who we want to be. If we give up who we really are in exchange for security, just what are we securing?

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