What We Forgot All Too Quickly


By Joe Campbell
September 11th, 2009


 
This morning, I re-read George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001 address to a Joint Session of Congress. You should too.

It is an impressive speech – both in its temperance and quality of rhetoric and how it so clearly set up the tragedies that were to come. Re-reading the words written so near the aftermath of this attack, it is remarkable how clearly they foreshadow what came next. It is as if the Bush administration never recovered from this attack – and never took time to reflect after those panicked moments when the towers fell. Bush used the now ubiquitous formulation, “We will never forget,” repeatedly in the speech – though all too quickly, we seemed to forget all of those things he said we never would:

America will never forget the sounds of our National Anthem playing at Buckingham Palace, on the streets of Paris, and at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

We will not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside our embassy in Seoul, or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo.

We will not forget moments of silence and days of mourning in Australia and Africa and Latin America.

Nor will we forget the citizens of 80 other nations who died with our own: dozens of Pakistanis; more than 130 Israelis; more than 250 citizens of India; men and women from El Salvador, Iran, Mexico, and Japan; and hundreds of British citizens.

Yet too often since then, “We will never forget,” is used as a code word for the other elements of his speech that came to dominate the polarizing battles as America re-polarized: from his declaration that every nation must be either with us or with the terrorists to his declaration that terrorism was motivated by the hatred of our freedom to his understated plea for more centralized executive power. (I’ve always found it interesting that the loudest voices railing against any curbs on government power used to defeat terrorism seem to live in areas remote from danger. The cities – where terrorism is much more likely – are hotbeds of liberalism and civil libertarianism. I, for one, work in a landmark building and pass through Penn Station, Times Square, and Grand Central Station.) Ignored from the text are the pleas for understanding of those different from us, his appreciation for the support of the world, and his declaration that in our response, America proved itself resilient and strong.

But for me, the two most memorable lines are the following – at the beginning and then end of the speech:

Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done…

Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice – assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come.

This is the path not taken. In our response, we often failed to live up to these words, these noble goals. Our justice system was deemed too weak for terrorists. Patience was abandoned in favor of short-term actions.  And all too quickly, the Baby Boom generation re-polarized along partisan lines as Karl Rove sought to turn what he saw Bush’s greatest weakness into his strength. And, in neglecting to reflect on the events of that day, we learned the wrong lessons – focusing on a “by any means necessary” response indicative of panic that undermined our power rather than the true lesson about America’s core strength that was revealed in the efficacy of the local responses and in the only thwarted attack:

The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.

We should never forget this – and remembering this day should reinforce our resolve to “meet violence with patient justice” and to stand for the civilization, freedom, the rule of law in the face of fear and terrorism rather than being cowed into preemptive surrender.

[Image by amarine88 licensed under Creative Commons.]

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