It is an honor to be invited to speak tonight as part of this important ceremony, giving us all an opportunity to reflect upon the events that occurred 10 years ago today in New York, DC, and just down the road in Shanksville. I want to thank Joshua Habursky, Steve Anderson, and all the people who helped to make this event possible.
At this point, we may all be a little exhausted from the many reflections on 9-11 that have been shared by television commentators, bloggers, and tweeters in the days running up to this anniversary. Politicians have discussed our national security, op-ed writers have looked back at their own prognostications, first responders have been praised, and ordinary people who lost fathers, mothers, cousins, neighbors, co-workers, and friends on that day have re-visited their grief. It’s been a hard anniversary to remember.
But remember it we must. Anniversaries are important times to look back and learn from history. As the requirements of daily living—answering email, completing assignments, paying bills, tending to friendships—stare us in the face, it is too easy to keep looking forward and to forget the lessons of the past. Anniversaries allow us to look back at the paths that we have travelled and to adjust our future destinations as necessary.
Every sentient American remembers where he or she was on September 11, 2001. When the first plane hit the first tower, it was not yet 6 a.m. in Portland Oregon and I was on a treadmill in my garage, putting in my three-mile run before breakfast and work. The morning news reporters were conjecturing that the FAA must be suffering from some kind of computer failure—or maybe an air traffic controller had made a terrible error. I pictured a small plane hitting the mighty tower. An awful picture, but nothing compared to the ball of fire that was erupting even as I put one foot in front of the other on the relentless rubber conveyor belt beneath me. Then, suddenly, Katie Couric reported that things looked quite different. A second plane had hit another of the World Trade Center towers. What did this mean? Was the report true? What was happening? It was then that I stopped the treadmill and went inside to wake my husband and our son. “I don’t know exactly what is going on,” I said, “But I think you might want to get up and watch what’s happening in New York.” Together, we sat in our family room, watching the story unfold as the extent of the horror grew. Then, as the first tower wavered, leaned, cracked, and tumbled down, hitting the ground with a thud that sent up a mushroom cloud of dust, ash, flesh, and flames, my sixteen-year-old son crawled into my lap on the couch and curled up like a young child. As the second tower fell, his curled body tightened.
Events like the fall of the two towers make children of us all. Suddenly, we do not know what is happening and, even if it is occurring a continent away, it confuses us. We cannot understand. How could a plane become a bomb? How could a tower full of people become a dust cloud? The world literally makes no sense to us and, like children, we cling to our families, to those who should help comprehend a world suddenly turned upside down and inside out. When the world falls apart, we need a strong community around us to give us security, to assure us that we are loved and that we have the collective power to make sense of it all.
Ten years later, on this important anniversary, we must revisit that sense of insecurity. As we build memorials and give speeches, we are still trying to make sense of what happened on that day. In the ensuing ten years, we have all become participants in what we call “the war on terrorism.” But how can we fight a war when we cannot identify the enemy? The man next to you in the grocery store or the airport security line could be a terrorist, could have evil intent in his heart. Is the pregnant woman sitting on the Lincoln Memorial steps really pregnant, or is she hiding something under her clothing? Should we call 911? Terror can erupt anywhere—in the subways of Madrid or a summer camp in Oslo. The most insidious thing about terrorism is no army can defeat it.
Are we safer today than we were ten years ago? In some ways, of course we are. Government agencies listen in on phone lines, snoop through billions of emails, looking for signs of trouble brewing. Everyday threats to our safety are identified and counteracted. The people I know within the intelligence community say that if the citizens of this country had any idea how many threats are pursued every day, they would be paralyzed with fear. But we keep going about our daily business, riding the subway, dropping our kids off at school, boarding planes. We must keep living our everyday lives in order to remain sane. Some people say that by refusing to be afraid, we defeat those who would terrorize us. But that is not enough.
In order to make ourselves truly safe, we need to work against the hatred that allows radical groups and deranged individuals to rip holes in our collective psyche. When Osama Bin Laden trained his followers to highjack those planes and convert them into armed missiles, he wanted to do more than demolish a few physical symbols of America. He wanted to ignite an “us vs. them,” “The West vs. Islam” crusade. By establishing clear battle lines, he could inspire hatred and violence against the West. The only way to truly defeat these tactics is to defeat hatred. And that is very hard to do. As a Christian, I was taught in Sunday school to “turn the other cheek.” But how do you do that when your child has been murdered while working at her desk on the 88th floor of Tower 1? How do you do that when your father expires as a bomb goes off in a subway in London?
I don’t pretend to have the answer. But I know that anti-Americanism has grown, not diminished, since 2001. And anti-Americanism breeds acts of violence. And I know that education is the most powerful weapon we have in overcoming hatred and xenophobia. Education will ensure our safety more than metal detectors or wire taps. It is easy to hate a faceless mob and to call them “militants” but it is harder to hate them when you know them as brothers, wives, mothers, and friends. My father, who was a veteran of Pearl Harbor said that because he saw the faces of the Japanese pilots he shot down, he always thought of himself as a murderer. Are there crazy people out there? Are there just plain “bad” people? Of course. And we have to deal with them. But let us not fall into the trap of prejudice, of pre-judging all Middle-Easterners or all Muslims as violent. Let us engage in truly global education by meeting others from around the world, talking with them, traveling with them, and exchanging ideas with them. Let us use our powerful communication technologies to shrink the globe, not divide it. And, as a country, let us work to promote the health and well-being of our global neighbors, not to destroy their farms and families. We say that every American who goes abroad is an ambassador for this country. Let us all be ambassadors, whether we are on foreign or domestic soil.
I remember well the feeling on September 12, 2001—the day after the towers fell, the Pentagon burned, and Shanksville shook--as we all worked to get our footing in the new world we were inhabiting—we came together. In New York, a city that is often the site of hatred and violence, compassion was widespread. People banded together to locate the missing and mourn the dead. Complete strangers helped one another find shelter and safety. We came together in those first few days as a country. We did not come together out of fear or in the face of a common enemy; we came together when our common humanity was exposed, when we saw all of ourselves as potential victims of an unforeseeable tragedy. We recognized our common frailty and we leaned on our sense of community to give us strength.
Unfortunately, that feeling of common purpose has also largely evaporated in the last ten years. Today, far too many Americans have no job, no way to support their families or gain a sense of self-worth. Far too many Americans are going to bed hungry or homeless. And yet where is our compassion, our sense of common humanity? In our nation’s capital, our leaders quarrel among themselves, focusing more upon winning elections and promoting their own careers than forging the difficult compromises and making the tough, potentially unpopular decisions that will solve the country’s problems. Our respect for common sacrifice—a pillar of our democratic government--is fading.
And so this is an important anniversary because it lets us reflect upon where we have come in the last ten years and adjust our course as we see fit—not an easy thing to do, but not impossible, either. For me, this anniversary helps reignite my commitment to the important task of education. I hope that it will encourage all of us at W&J to devote ourselves to education in our classrooms, in our community, and around the world. For, only by learning about each other, by studying history, learning to reflect philosophically, and telling our stories can we truly win the war that Osama Bin Laden ignited ten years ago.
And let us use the physical memorials we have built as constant reminders of these lessons. In New York, water tumbles down into reflecting pools where the great towers once stood. Here on campus, our own 9-11 memorial, the fountain outside of Burnett, is once again working, thanks to the dedication of Phil Shook and John Gallo from GCA. When the class of 2002 donated that fountain, who knew that it would echo the memorial built in New York City? Both fountains feature water cascading into a pool. As I look at them, I am reminded of bodies falling from the sky ten years ago. I think of the endless tears shed over lives and ideals lost on that day. But I also think of the renewal, the ever-refreshing quality of a waterfall, bringing new strength and new life to us all. Water cleanses and it provides energy. It enlivens parched fields. As you pass our 9-11 fountain, I hope it will spur you to thought and reflection as well. And I hope it will give you the strength to work toward educating the world, one person at a time if necessary, to bring all of us and all of our children peace.