I can't begin to catalog the many ways in which our most basic values were decimated in the wake of the attacks. Fortunately I don't have to try because my friend Vince Warren has done a brilliant job of it and you should give his piece a read.
What I have been thinking about this week, as the media had made thinking about 9/11 unavoidable, is what might have been. George W. Bush failed in his response to 9/11. There are many ways in which he failed and many reasons for his failure but fundamentally I think he failed because he is a coward. What terrorists seek is clear - terror. And Bush's reaction to the attack was a fearful one. He elevated safety over all other values, including the values that lie at the heart of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Fear was unavoidable that day. It was a terrifying day. I remember standing on the street and watching the smoke coming from the buildings before they fell. I remember the total confusion and the stunned looks of the people in the streets of Manhattan after the towers fell. I remember watching F-16s fly just above the tops of the buildings. But true leadership is about overcoming fear and helping those you lead to overcome it as well.
It has probably never been said better than Franklin Roosevelt said it in the famous words of his first inaugural address
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.Though he was talking about an economic calamity and not a physical attack the words are the words that America needed to hear in those dark days of September, 2001.
So as I look at the wreckage of our civil liberties, our standing in the world, and our economy sapped in part by 10 years of war, I can't help but as "what if?" What if, instead of George W. Bush, there had been a President with the courage to deny those who attacked us the terror that they wanted. What if instead there had been President who said that, while we would join with the world community to find and punish those who had committed the horrific attacks, we would not change who we are. We would not give in to fear. Freedom often has a price. A free society will have vulnerabilities. That does not mean there is nothing we can do to prevent attacks by those who wish us harm. But we do ourselves harm when we surrender our most basic values.
The tragedy is only compounded by the fact that it now seems clear that much of what we have done in the name of security over the past ten years has not made us more secure. Our lawlessness has simply encouraged lawlessness throughout the world. The world solidarity that sprang from near universal horror at the attacks of 9/11 could have been nurtured by a great leader into a worldwide force for peace and justice. Alas, it was not to be. We can only hope for better in the future.