9/11: We are so much more than our enemies knew

By the AJC Editorial Board

Related: Column 1 from 9/11/01 | Column 2 from 9/11/01

A decade has passed since a murderous band of zealots commandeered four jetliners and launched an icy-hearted strike against this nation. Innocents died by the thousands as a result.

We’re a different nation since Sept. 11, 2001.

But our attackers did not win. Not on that day, and not in the days since.

They could not win. And they will never win.

For they did not know us.

They failed to understand that the America of internationally beamed pop culture with its overabundance of self-centered fluff, buffoonery and avarice is but a distracting cloak, and not America’s bedrock core.

Our enemies did not grasp the real America — the one of everyday people who have never hesitated to make any sacrifices necessary to maintain our way of life.

Those who hated us couldn’t comprehend that our society and democracy is most always a messy, imperfect affair, even on its best days. Americans disagree; we bicker. That’s just us. Ideally, reasonable voices and the best ideas — not the loudest ones — carry the day. That’s not always the case, but we adjust as needed. And when national unity becomes a necessity, we can rapidly meld disparate voices to achieve it.

Our enemies did not understand that. They also could not fathom the innate yearning for freedom that led ordinary souls to become extraordinary heroes. That’s what roused passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 to storm the cockpit, thwarting the intent of the cowards who’d hijacked their airplane. It motivated New York’s emergency responders to climb the twin towers’ stairwells, knowing full well that the buildings could become their tomb.

It is that valor and self-sacrifice that we should call to mind today as we look upon Old Glory and reflect upon the horrible events of 9/11.

The attacks changed America as we knew it. In the days afterward, rescuers searched desperately for survivors amid tons of toxic rubble. We mourned our dead. In time, our warriors began a search-and-destroy campaign to ferret out and neutralize a wily enemy skilled in the ways of hiding in plain sight.

That battle did not end with the double-tap of a trigger that killed Osama bin Laden. Americans, and the rest of the freedom-loving world, have adjusted to the post-9/11 reality that the risk of terrorism will be with us for a long time.

That acceptance proves another strength of U.S. democracy — our ability to continually change and adapt to new circumstances without losing the essence of our collective being. We’re always in pursuit of that “more perfect” union envisioned by the Constitution’s authors. Remaining steadfast in that quest will ensure our survival despite whatever travail the future may visit upon us.

It will also help us address the continuing questions about just how best to secure our nation without bankrupting either our Treasury or the civil liberties we hold dear.

After the shock of Sept. 11, the U.S. reacted quickly to batten down and reinforce vulnerable edges of our open society. In the uncertainty and fear that radiated outward from the ruined attack sites, new phrases such as homeland security entered our collective language. We’ve learned the truth of the iconic saying that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

Going forward as a people, we must continue to define what is workable and just as we all stand sentry against dangers tomorrow may bring. What is sustainable, practical and sufficient to best safeguard our nation? What security measures will best mesh with the inalienable rights we enjoy as Americans — the right to be secure in our own persons and homes and to be free of unreasonable government intrusions. Benjamin Franklin wrote in the 1750s that, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” His assertion has lost none of its relevance.

Americans must decide matters such as whether pat-down searches of toddlers in airport security lines are as effective a deterrent as the probability that would-be hijackers are now likely to face the physical wrath of a planeload of passengers. These questions will require our attention in the days ahead.

For today, though, it is sufficient and good for us to simply consider the events of Sept. 11 and remember those who perished when terrorism breached our shores.

We have endured in the days since, and may that always be the case.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

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