Ten years ago on September 11th, America suffered a crushing blow that altered the way we live our lives and think about the world. The tragedy that killed three thousand people conditioned us to rethink our security systems, modify our foreign policy, and heighten our attention to foreigners who visit our country or immigrants who seek to make our country their new home.
Just about anyone old enough to understand the shattering events of that September remembers where he or she was when the first tower fell. I was visiting a colleague at another university when his assistant stepped into the office, ashen and agitated, and conveyed the news. I left only to find the city of Boston at a virtual stand-still.
Were other major American cities soon to be hit? Would the attack on the World Trade Center be followed by attacks on the nation’s critical infrastructure? More urgently for those of us with friends or family in New York City, who had been affected, who killed, who survived the terrible odds?
What surprised me at the time was the incredible heroism of ordinary New Yorkers who rushed to the aid of their fellow citizens. The massive outpouring of support and grief from around the world gave America a moving sense that we were not alone, that good people everywhere—Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever—were equally horrified at this assault on what it means to be a civilized nation.
Even now, a decade later, the wounds remain raw, the hurt lingering and painful, if also often subliminal, and the loss of life still shattering. What lessons do we draw?
I think that we would do well to recall the immediate reactions of so many ordinary New Yorkers and Americans in the days following the attack. While evil and criminal behavior is present in this world, we still hold on the goodness of humanity. We refuse to let the crimes of terrorists predispose our attitudes to the far more numerous good people who share a nationality, an ethnicity, or a religion with those criminals. Despite our pain or our outrage, we know that inhumanity must not beget cruelty or contaminate the values we hold sacred in our democracy.
The real lesson of September 11th lies in the outpouring of sorrow and solidarity that poured in from around the world during the days and months that followed. Civilized people everywhere saw this tragedy as their own, and that empathy bound us closer together as a world that most of us would have imagined possible. A crime against Americans innocently going about their lives and jobs became an emblem of the darkness that hovers on civilization’s borders, a reminder of the alternative to the rule of law and to our cherished moral imperative of respect for the rights of others.
This tenth anniversary of September 11th is a powerful opportunity to think of the ways each one of us can contribute to our communities and to the common good. Let us then act upon them to make this world a better, safer, more just place for all.