It has now been a dozen years since the barbarous 9/11 terrorist attacks on our nation. Let us each take a moment to remember the thousands who tragically lost their lives—in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania—and the many more who were wounded or who lost a loved one on that terrible day.
The truth is we all lost something on that Tuesday morning. An important part of our nation’s foundation was shaken; a foundation we took for granted—that we were secure, our families safe, our borders impenetrable. Suddenly we felt vulnerable, we felt exposed, we felt afraid. And we felt angry.
Terrorists perpetrate crimes that are truly against humanity … and their intent is indeed to alter our humanity. For human beings respond in largely unconscious ways when so fundamentally threatened. Attacks like these can change the way we think … about others. About race and ethnicity. About our faith. About our own country and other countries. About the future. And most of all, about those who do not agree with us on all counts.
After 9/11, individuals with Middle Eastern or Arabic sounding names began to be viewed as probable terrorists. And some among us viewed the Islamic faith, though the largest religion on the planet, as a threat to our way of life. It is clear that the horrific attacks of that day altered the way we think. About our citizens, about our friends, and about the world. Rapidly and in ways almost impossible to control.
But something else happened on that day: People of all kinds stepped up to help one another. Heroic first responders climbed up the tower stairs seeking to help others climb down—and kept climbing until the towers collapsed around them. Hundreds of ordinary people committed individual acts of heroism and kindness to comfort, to heal, or to save a stranger. And passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93—who had arisen that ordinary morning and boarded a seemingly mundane flight to San Francisco—launched a courageous though ultimately doomed attempt to save themselves and their fellow passengers by taking the terrorists down. Their heroic sacrifice no doubt saved many lives at the site of the intended target.
These dual responses happen each time we face attack; they happened earlier this year when terrorists struck at the Boston Marathon. We can count on it: Terrorism brings out both the best and some of the worst in human nature.
So what can we do? How do we ensure the good wins?
We must be aware of these side effects of terror, both the negative and the positive. We must carefully monitor for and guard against the first … while we highlight and honor the second.
For in this way—if we refuse to allow ourselves to become something different, to change the way we regard our fellow human beings; if instead we celebrate and pay homage to the generosity of spirit and to the courage so brilliantly on display in the midst of tragedy—then we deny the terrorists the results they seek.
The terrorists lose.