September 8, 2002

Reflections on an America Transformed


  1. Stephen L. Carter
  2. Cynthia Ozick
  3. Tom Daschle
  4. Tony Kushner
  5. Richard Posner
  6. Muhammad Ali
  1. Mary Karr
  2. John Edgar Wideman
  3. Newt Gingrich
  4. Martha Nussbaum
  5. William J. Bennett
  6. Kathleen M. Sullivan

Stephen L. Carter

What has changed since the terrorist attacks of a year ago? There are more flags in evidence, American troops are fighting abroad with widespread domestic support, and at home, in the midst of grieving for our losses, we seem to accept as more or less inevitable the prospect of a war to remove Saddam Hussein. We have proved to be in many respects a nation of patriots, and angry ones still.

As the first anniversary approaches, we also bear an eerie resemblance to the nation we were before that day. Activists on the right and the left trade charges about whose fault the tragedy was, because there is no event too solemn not to be turned to short-term political advantage. A glance at the television screen or the front page is enough to persuade most Americans that all the old divisive issues have regained center stage, as though journalists had grown swiftly bored with a nation that hoped to put its old contentiousness aside. Our brief moment of unity — of trying to choose a richer path, to seek our human commonalities, to understand ourselves as more than consumers and view each other as more than obstacles — has become but a frail memory, fading fast. Perhaps it was after all a chimera — or, more accurately, a phoenix, which rises from the ashes, but only in myth.

That is why what America most needs today may be prayer: prayer that God may yet help us, before it is too late, to stop our accelerating slide toward the way things used to be.

Stephen L. Carter is a professor at Yale Law School. His most recent book is a novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park."

Cynthia Ozick

One year ago E. M. Forster's reverberating epigraph to "Howard's End" — "Only Connect" — had the principled power to shape and shake our post-Sept. 11 world. In Forster's novel, a respectable businessman is made to see that he is no different from the raffish wife of a penniless clerk: both are guilty of adultery. Culpability cannot be veiled or rationalized. Like is like, vile is vile.

This fundamental imperative of connectedness burst upon Americans with horrific force when we understood, in a flash of fire and ash, the suicidal hijackers' single-minded motive. Their purpose was merciless venom. Their hatred was not for what we have done or have not done; it was for what we are. What had been happening in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in the Indian parliament, in synagogues from London to Lyon, had come to New York and Washington.

What the radical mullahs of faraway Saudi Arabia and Gaza were preaching had finally scorched our town. The indivisibility of terror had been clarified, incontrovertibly, by the moral precision of Only Connect.

Yet little by little that indivisibility begins to crack and fray. A slippery disconnect has set in, an unwillingness to see. An early sign emerged on the Fourth of July, when an Egyptian armed with guns and knives killed Israelis at the El Al counter in Los Angeles, and officials backed away from calling it terror. Germany recently disclosed that Al Qaeda was behind the synagogue bombing in Tunis; no notable, or even noticeable, conclusions have been drawn. Justifications are daily mouthed in the international press for the suicide bombings of Palestinians whose declared mission is the annihilation of the Jewish state.

As for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, last September there were relatively few voices that held America responsible for the aggression committed against it. Today there are many more.

When terror is balkanized, terror can only win. When the victims are said to be complicit with the terrorists, the disconnect has entered its final stages. And so has mental and moral lucidity.

Cynthia Ozick's most recent book is "Quarrel & Quandary," a selection of essays.

Tom Daschle

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Robert Kennedy helped console the nation by quoting Aeschylus. Kennedy said that in time the pain would lessen, and from it would come wisdom "through the awful grace of God."

Like other tragic experiences, Sept. 11 has in some ways made America wiser. We gained a renewed appreciation for the importance of family, friends, faith, duty and community. In South Dakota, I saw schoolchildren empty piggy banks and ranchers sell cattle so they could help people they had never met in places they had never visited.

There have been other, more sobering changes. We learned that the mightiest nation on earth is not invulnerable; that a major new effort is needed to better secure our homeland; and that great care must be taken to preserve the fundamental liberties that define America, even as we work to combat terrorism.

For those of us in public service, Sept. 11 reinforced our commitment to that calling and made us doubly mindful of the weight of our responsibilities, especially where national security is concerned. We go about our work with a deeper sense of urgency and with greater humility. We still begin each new morning with optimism, but it is tempered by indelible memories and by the realities of the post-Sept. 11 world.

America was wounded on Sept. 11, but that wound is healing. As we reflect on those events, we are reminded to treat every day as precious, to cherish our many blessings, and to live lives worthy of the sacrifices of those we lost.

Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, is Senate majority leader.

Tony Kushner

Change is not the substitution of one static state for another. The meanings of Sept. 11 continue to be fought over, and the prevailing interpretations will direct future action. Colossal tragedy has made available to America the possibility of a new understanding of our place in the world.

Tragedy's paradox is that it has a creative aspect: new meaning flows to fill the emptiness hollowed out by devastation. Are we dedicated to democratic, egalitarian principles applicable to our own people as well as to the people of the world? And do we understand that "our own people" and "the people of the world" are interdependent? Will we respond with imagination, compassion and courageous intelligence, refusing imperial projects and infinite war?

The path we will take is not available for prediction. We ought not to believe columnists, think-tank determinists or the cowboy bromides of our president and his dangerous handlers and advisers. We, the citizenry, are still interpreting.

Our conclusions will then force our reinterpretation. Urgency is appropriate but not an excuse for stupidity or brutality. Our despair over our own powerlessness is simply a lie we are telling ourselves. We are all engaged in shaping the interpretation, and in the ensuing actions, we are all implicated.

Tony Kushner's most recent play is "Homebody/Kabul."

Richard Posner

The United States is at war. It is common in war for nothing much to happen for months on end; think of the "phony war" that followed Hitler's conquest of Poland in 1939.

Now a diffuse but dangerous enemy, itching to get its hands on weapons of mass destruction, apt to precipitate state-level wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, wants to kill us. There are daily reminders at airports and public buildings that we are at war; one has only to walk around the White House to sense a nation at war.

Perhaps not since 1941 has the nation itself been in greater danger; it is not just its overseas allies or its status in great-power politics that is in peril. Recognition of this has bound Americans together. Our racial, ethnic, religious and class differences suddenly are less important. The enemy does not discriminate among us; the foreigner, with rare exceptions, will not help us. The common enemy unites America.

And no longer do our civil liberties seem immune from critical reflection. They are not, as the na´ve suppose, engraved in the Constitution. They are the creation of Supreme Court justices playing variations on themes stated in that document with notable brevity and looseness. They are the point of balance between public safety and personal liberty, and as the relative weights change, the balance shifts. Endangered more gravely than we had supposed possible by an enemy that cannot be defeated by military methods alone, the nation redraws the line between security and liberty.

Richard Posner is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Muhammad Ali

I am saddened to think that one of the effects of Sept. 11 is the fearful way in which many Americans now look at Muslims. America's view of Muslims and of Islam seems to have gone from one of indifference or perhaps misunderstanding to one of hate and distrust. Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance — not one of hate and revenge. Killing all of those innocent people will count against the terrorists on their judgment day. Those wishing evil on the world cannot call themselves Muslims, for they are hijacking an honorable faith.

While I cannot imagine the relentless grief that the victims' families are experiencing, I do know that Americans are a good and strong people. Our beliefs and values — along with those of all the other decent citizens of the world — will always be stronger than the beliefs of those who wish to do us harm.

Muhammad Ali is the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

Mary Karr

On Sept. 12, I finally peeled myself away from the TV that had rendered me google-eyed and headed to the store. It was my first venture off the sofa, away from the phone's redial button and my son and into the transformed world. My attention was keen, and I hadn't slept.

Right away, a shift in my attitude manifested itself. I drove slower than usual, and at the first four-way stop signs, I waved two cars ahead. Overnight, other drivers had ceased to be mere traffic. The same held true in the store. In normal maneuvers, I might have battered my cart against others like a bumper car. But faces that would normally have blurred past had become distinct, particular. It's how you study people at a funeral to find out who's kin to the deceased.

Later, a claims adjuster called from my insurance company. Another day the conversation might have degenerated into a wrangle, but after a few minutes I asked if she was O.K. I am, she said. She'd been wanting to ask me the same thing.

Mine is not a benevolent nature. Like most writers, I have a hermit's streak, and the notion of membership in anything sounds like a trick. But watching so many Americans disintegrate in one blink had torn something up from deep roots in me. I'd become a citizen of the polis. There was and still is tenderness in that, if not glory.

Mary Karr's most recent book is "Cherry," a memoir.

John Edgar Wideman

The towers are gone. In their place is a vacancy, like the vacancy a birth fills or a death leaves behind. After the shock of disbelief and the numbness of denial, a second shock of recognition — it happened, it truly did happen — is transforming Americans in ways only time will reveal. And what do we ever learn from time?

The most deeply affecting experiences remain mysterious, unspeakable. Even the commonplace partakes of mystery when we admit it uncensored. The mind explains away mystery to liberate us from suffering the disruptive duty of feeling, of bearing witness — especially when an unprecedented catastrophe assaults hard-won, precarious certainties. Explanations become evasions of responsibility.

The towers should be rebuilt or forgotten or memorialized or avenged: these reactions and countless others being suffered, alleged, fabricated, litigated, commodified, spectacularized or manipulated should not point us backward. No consensus about the nation's health and priorities existed before Sept. 11, and if we attempt to restore a mythical America, we'll be repeating a fatal error. We live in a world that destroyed the World Trade Center. This world, whether we like it or not, is as much a source of hope as it is a cause of grief.

John Edgar Wideman's most recent book is "Hoop Roots," a memoir.

Newt Gingrich

What Sept. 11 has made clear is that we must shift our national security policy from containment to pre-emption. It is also unmistakable that some people really hate us. This is not a problem of communication. They understand what America is and what we stand for, and still they want to kill us.

Reactionary Islam, as distinct from modern Islam, will always oppose us because our very existence threatens its values. American women who drive, vote, wear modern clothing and work, all without a male relative watching them, are a threat to the core tenets of reactionary Islam, which is prepared to impose its values by violence. The Wahhabi sect has become a worldwide movement of radical Islam perpetuated by madrassas that indoctrinate young males into this fanatical belief system, of which Al Qaeda is merely a symptom. Its goal is to create a world incompatible with our survival.

Containment is impossible in an age of international travel, multiethnic societies and weapons of mass destruction. By waiting for our enemy to strike, we risk losing a city — or worse. To ensure that every American can live in safety, health, prosperity and freedom, our national security policy must be to pre-empt and defeat our enemies. That is the lesson of Sept. 11.

Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999.

Martha Nussbaum

Before Sept. 11, Americans knew very little about the Arab world and still less about South Asia. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan — all these were mere names, rarely attached to any helpful grasp of these nations' geography or history. Ignorance of the major religions of the region was equally widespread, and ignorance of the relevant languages so complete that our intelligence efforts were damaged.

The hardships faced by women in these and other nations (different hardships from nation to nation, but significant in all the ones I've named) have long been a topic of concern for international agencies and movements. In particular, the education of women has long been recognized as a key to peaceful development in this region. But most Americans knew nothing about such problems, and thus could not join in the international search for their solution.

Now Americans have become curious. People are reading books about Islam, learning about women's literacy movements, getting at least a basic grasp of the problems of many nations that were merely names before. Students are enrolling in courses in globalization and its effects. Some are even studying Arabic.

This new curiosity sometimes yields unhelpful stereotypes. Too many Americans see Asian women as pathetic victims, ignoring the vitality of indigenous women's movements and the changes they have achieved. They also tend to equate Islam with fundamentalism — even though these same people would not equate Christianity with evangelical fundamentalism. This mistake is due to a neglect of the complex history of interpretation and the existence of plural understandings.

But the more knowledge there is available, the easier it becomes to undermine crude stereotypes. Let us hope that this opening to the world will be a lasting one, as Americans increasingly realize that our actions have the power to promote, or to mar, the chances for a better life for people everywhere.

Martha Nussbaum is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago.

William J. Bennett

Along with many others, I have for several years worried that America is in decline. Since 1960, what I call the index of leading cultural indicators has tracked depressing changes in American society, from a rise in family breakdowns to a decline in civic participation. These trends led many to question the strength of American character.

On Sept. 11, those questions were answered. The backbone of our great nation remained firm and unyielding. The heroic men and women of New York City, the Pentagon and Flight 93 were rightfully lionized. We did not cower in fear, withdrawing from the world. Instead, we went after those who had attacked us, carefully but firmly. American support for that action was widespread. It turns out that the soul of democratic man is more resilient than expected.

Many questions about American society obviously remain open. But the events of Sept. 11 provide important and encouraging insights for understanding what we have become and what we still are.

William J. Bennett is codirector of Empower America.

Kathleen M. Sullivan

In a national security crisis, constitutional rights and liberties are often the first to go.

President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus without the consent of Congress, allowing Northern troops to detain Southern sympathizers without recourse to courts. The Supreme Court later chastised him, but only after the Civil War had ended. President Roosevelt allowed the mass internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Congress later authorized reparations, but only after many of the internees were long dead.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration, like previous administrations in times of national security crisis, has claimed that exigency trumps ordinary procedure. True, we have seen no mass quarantine of Middle Eastern immigrants, nor yet the use of military tribunals to do civil courts' work.

But we have seen immigrants placed in secret deportation proceedings, and American citizens suspected of terrorist ties denied counsel and placed in military brigs. We have watched as Congress sped to approve new antiterrorism measures that increased surveillance of e-mail messages and expanded the power of a secret foreign intelligence court to approve wiretaps. We have heard government lawyers argue for dramatic expansion of the category of enemy combatants.

Such measures draw little public outcry, for swift and decisive action against amorphous danger is naturally popular, and civil rights and liberties seem a luxury reserved for safer times. But constitutions, like diets, are meant to restrict us most when temptation is greatest. And our constitution, unlike many others, contains no emergency clause providing for its own suspension.

In a series of bold decisions, federal judges have acknowledged as much and sought to enforce traditional constitutional values — opening deportation proceedings to the press, requiring access to counsel and questioning the foreign intelligence justifications for domestic surveillance.

Such decisions, if upheld, offer us a chance to break the cycle of excessive deference to executive prerogative in national emergencies. A continuous constitution is our greatest protection from terrorism in the first place, and now is the time to hold true to its principles.

Kathleen M. Sullivan is dean of Stanford Law School.

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