Lessons from 9/11

This year commemorates the crystal anniversary of the coordinated terrorist attacks known colloquially as 9/11.

Sept. 11, 2001 made an unwarranted intrusion into the annals of American history alongside Dec. 7, 1941 and Nov. 22, 1963 as dates representative of incomprehensible evil. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania have forever removed this generation from the perceived Teflon coating of immunity against such absurdity.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedies, we also bore witness to America at its best. For a brief moment, there was a unity of spirit that dominated the American ethos.

Petty politics were put to the side for something larger. Our myopic lens widened, allowing us see the humanity in others more clearly. We learned of unsung heroes, some making the ultimate sacrifice.

This feeling reached its apex in Yankee Stadium, when, on Oct. 30, 2001, before Game 3 of the World Series, President George W. Bush, standing 60 feet 6 inches from home plate, hurled a strike to the catcher, transforming the ceremonial first pitch into a symbolism for American resolve.

We vowed never to forget 9/11, and in many respects we have not. But the underlying fear, resulting from that ill-fated day, rendered America vulnerable in a manner perhaps not duplicated in its history.

Unlike Pearl Harbor, when some Americans witnessed newsreels in the aftermath or the JFK assassination footage taken by Abraham Zapruder, which was not made public until 1975, America saw the second jet go into World Trade Center tower live.

The power of that image allowed us to conveniently place an asterisk on Sept. 11, 2001, denoting the date where we would be willing to make an exception to the constitutional values that had held the nation together for 213 years.

It was a time when the Patriot Act made sense to majorities in Congress and the nation at-large, in spite of protestations of its dangers. The downside was rationalized in that only those with something to hide should worry about the unprecedented invasion of privacy that was shielded by the Fourth Amendment's protection of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. The fear of another terrorist attack made the risk of any potential government overreach a Faustian bargain worth taking.

The understandable need to return to safety permitted our collective actions to utter the unthinkable: "Yes, our constitutional values are important, but..."

Since the nation decided to embark on this ill-advised adventure, it has taken us down a rabbit hole of which we're still seeking to climb our way out.

Illegal immigration became transmuted into a problem somehow linked to 9/11. Despite having nothing do with the terrorist attacks, individuals from Mexico and Latin America were viewed as a visceral threat to American safety, even though the culprits came here legally.

And then there was Iraq, the foreign-policy misadventure that placed "weapons of mass destruction" into the lexicon of a country already drowning in fear.

This represented a dark chapter in our history where certainty was the coin of the realm and questions to the contrary were bordering on treason. The majority saw the minority opinion as an irritant unworthy of acknowledgement rather than a combative ally, if nothing else, serving as the best opportunity against succumbing to the toxins of megalomania.

Our elected leadership and their surrogates failed us. Many Democrats in Congress, more concerned with re-election, retreated into the cowardice of self-preservation.

The run-up to the war in Iraq was marred by a Congress that spent more hours on trivialities than deliberating if Iraq presented the type of threat that warranted a preemptive strike.

With high approval ratings, under the backdrop of the 9/11 tragedies, America took its eye off the war on terror in Afghanistan and the perpetrators harboring refuges there. Instead, the Bush administration turned to Iraq on evidence that has been proved wrong. The result was a destabilization of the region and a world that is less safe today.

On this 15th anniversary of 9/11, let us never forget the innocent lives that were lost that day, the families whose lives were permanently altered and the valor that service units displayed, willing to risk their lives to save others. But let also us remember it was a moment when fear trumped our values. And to the latter point let us be resolved to say: Never again.

The Rev. Byron Williams, a writer and the host of the NPR-affiliated "The Public Morality"