America the better

By Ellen Ratner

The images will last forever and perhaps define a generation: the Twin Towers burning, the fiery gash in the Pentagon and the silence of the dead slice of ground in Pennsylvania. These pictures will take their doleful place in our history together with the black and white film of the sinking USS Arizona and the lithographs of the USS Maine and the battered walls of Fort Sumter.

No amount of cheap moralizing or “lesson drawing” will detract from the horrible reality that fanatics murdered thousands of innocent American civilians on Sept. 11, 2001. You want something that “looks like America”? Just remember the names and pictures of the victims – they belonged to every race, religion, creed, region and practically every country in the world. No, the day of Sept. 11 belongs uniquely to itself.

All this being said, there are lessons that can be drawn from Sept. 12 and every day thereafter.

The character of our country came through in ways that prove to the world that democracies have good memories and, like the best wines, improve with age.

For starters, the natural revulsion felt by many Americans toward her assailants did not translate into the type of overreaction against minorities that quickly followed Pearl Harbor. There may have been individual incidents against Muslim-Americans, but there were no programmatic round-ups by the government of people holding green cards or of U.S. citizens. No concentration camps of the type that Japanese-Americans were herded into. No McCarthyism of the type that followed our entry into the Korean War.

Indeed, a recent poll suggested that most Americans actually feel more favorable toward Islam as a religion than before the attacks. In fact, our lawmakers, religious leaders and business leaders made a point to differentiate between our enemies and our fellow citizens. And we are the better for it.

There’s more. We did not close our society off. The temptation to build “A Great Wall” around our borders may be tempting to some, but it would permanently alter our free and open character as a society.

And that free and open society has permitted necessary dissent to flourish. The Democrats, my party, remain strong. Many of you may disagree with the questions that party may raise about the Bush administration, but few of you would argue with the right to question or even its necessity. Indeed, the only way to keep our society together in the tough days ahead is to guarantee that everyone has his or her say. And we are the better for it.

This time, there won’t be any “creeping escalation” of the type President Lyndon Johnson used to commit us to the Vietnam War. While I oppose a preemptive attack on Iraq, I am at least satisfied that this time, there won’t be any phony Gulf of Tonkin resolutions. We have too many citizens who are on the alert for such dishonesty.

By the time this is published, President Bush will have made his case to the United Nations and will also be taking the issue to the Congress for debate. Indeed, there have been recent indications that Bush is reconsidering his unilateral approach to taking action against Iraq. There is no better proof of the value of dissent than how the president has modified his stance. And we are the better for it.

Starting on Sept. 12, this country also began taking a hard look at our alliances in the region. Is it really in our interest to back corrupt royal dynasties and military dictatorships? For the first time, the American people are taking a hard look at some of our “friends.” Not even the Israelis have escaped this scrutiny – questions are being raised in mainstream discussion about West Bank settlements as well as the overall relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. And we (and the region) will be the better for it.

There remain many issues that I, as well as others, have with the Bush administration’s war on terror. In my opinion, in terms of civil rights, there has been overreaching by Ashcroft and company – Bush has sometimes adopted a foreign policy swagger that ill-behooves this country’s real interests in a globalized world. Nevertheless, one year later, this country remains free, debate is as vigorous as ever and there still exists a bipartisan resolve to wage this war on terror.

And we are the better for it.