Another reflection on 9/11

I hope our experiences of trauma, heroism, and loss—and, yes, our subsequent mistakes and misdeeds related to that day—will increase our empathy for so many others who endure natural and man-made catastrophes across the globe.

I started this piece in O’Hare Airport. ORD was pretty normal today. Traffic was a bit lighter at the American terminal, but not much. That’s good. The light of a full moon illuminated the skyline below on a beautiful clear flight. Still, my wife was somewhat relieved to get my text that the flight had landed.

There’s not much new to say about 9/11, maybe history’s most covered atrocity. We must remember the 3,000 beautiful people were murdered that day. We must also remember the heroism of so many first-responders—police, fire fighters, and ordinary people who did their part to help. Bill Clinton just gave a beautiful speech commemorating the heroism of passengers on United Flight 93. The words of John 15:13 remain tough to beat: There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.

On twitter, Atul Gawande today provided reminiscences from medical personnel readying themselves to help ten years ago. In the wake of tragedy, tens of thousands of health care workers, fire fighters, police officers, iron workers, social workers, air traffic controllers, and others worked with quiet professionalism to help survivors, to ground America’s air fleet, to provide security against future threats, to comfort the bereaved. My own step-sister was an EMT at the time in northern New Jersey. She waited in a phalanx of ambulances ready to evacuate the wounded. Sadly, their services weren’t needed.

Today is an especially sad day because America was so rattled by the 9/11 atrocity, because to some degree we lost our way. Given a real whiff of fear, we proved willing to violate constitutional principles we might previously have assumed were bedrock. Of course we became embroiled in an Iraqi adventure that proved to be a human and strategic catastrophe for everyone involved. Bin Laden is now dead. That needed to happen. I hope this frees us, politically and psychically, to end the declared, apocalyptic, global war on terror, which was never the right way to think about the threats we face.

At a human level, I’m surprisingly saddened by the sight of President George W. Bush. He’s such a tragic figure. His presidency so diminished our nation, at home and abroad. I believe, perhaps over-generously, that “compassionate conservatism” was more than a campaign trope. Efforts such as PEPFAR were of genuine value. Had he not been personally rattled by the horrors of 9/11, had Bin Laden not delivered Bush an artificial, partisan mandate, the Bush 43 presidency might have played out more effectively, more honorably. We’ll never know.

I try to imagine his predicament ten years ago today. About this time, he was aboard Air Force One, somewhere over the Midwest, trying to pierce through the confusion to determine what the hell had just happened, wondering what other attacks were to come, and what he needed to be doing to reassure the country in a moment of national trauma and potential peril. History will record that he was brave in the immediate moment, but that he ultimately failed his country and himself. I think he realized this himself. I think it’s time to forgive the man, even as we firmly repudiate just about every one of his policies.

It’s still too soon to tell whether the experience of 9/11 will enlarge or diminish our nation. I hope our memories of trauma, heroism, and loss—and, yes, our subsequent mistakes and misdeeds related to that day—will increase our empathy for so many others who endure natural and man-made catastrophes across the globe.

Over much of the inhabitable world’s surface, people struggle with famine, poverty, and disease. Right now, millions of Pakistanis are facing a devastating flood. Every day, millions of people live in fear or seek revenge as the result of genocide, terrorism, or war. I hope it enlarges our appreciation of the difficulties experienced by people around the world who have hurt and have been hurt in deadly group conflicts. In our diplomacy, we ask others—Israelis and Palestinians, for instance—to display great resilience and restraint in resolving their most difficult disputes. Ten years ago today, we learned something about how difficult this can be.

Many Americans were touched by the response of people across the world, who showed up in force at Ground Zero and elsewhere after 9/11 to help. Are we there for others in their hour of need, when they most need help? Sometimes we are, not often enough. There are many Ground Zeroes in this world. We need to help each other. That’s the clearest lesson from 9/11.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

8 thoughts on “Another reflection on 9/11”

  1. Dont you EVER feel sorry for Bush. He foisted a malignant crew of militarist liars on us, and they smiled all the way to the bank. He deserves every bit of contempt that he (hopefully) will continue to get. Sorry to be harsh, but one must be realistic.

  2. I don’t think that Bush exhibited, or had reason to exhibit, any particular degree of bravery in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I don’t know what was behind his immediate initial response to being informed that the nation was under attack (which was to sit there and do nothing), but it doesn’t strike me as an act of courage. He subsequently acted more like a leader, but I don’t think that that took a lot of courage either.

    I’m not saying that Bush should have joined the first responders, or, later, parachuted into Afghanistan with our troops. His job was to stay safe while other people acted courageously. I’m not criticizing him for a lack of bravery, but crediting him with bravery seems wrong.

  3. In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush certainly showed real leadership on a superficial level. His insistence on making it clear to the nation that we were not at war with Islam, his support of American Moslems were important factors in preventing large-scale discrimination and prejudice to develop.

    But Bush was, unfortunately, in over his head with respect to the military and national security challenges that resulted from 9/11, to the point where he allowed his Presidency to be hijacked by Dick Cheney. And he allowed the domestic politics of 9/11 to be hijacked by Karl Rove. Unfortunately for all of us, the Administration allowed Cheney, a man with a great deal of experience with the bureaucratic apparatus of the Federal Government but little or no experience with the post-Cold War international scene, to take us down too many wrong roads: war in Iraq, the terrible precedent of officially sanctioned torture, a gross overreaction to the national security problems of modern-day terrorism, etc.

  4. “Tragic figure” — what utter hogwash. Bush was not “brave in the immediate moment” or at any other time before or since. As the towers burned Bush ran for the deepest bunker he could find where, over the phone, he and Cheney immediately began concocting the lies and blowing the smokescreen which would obscure their criminal negligence in the matter of the long-expected terrorist attacks. Bush is no more a “tragic figure” than Charles Manson or Bernie Madoff. On 9/11 he was a spoiled brat, a criminal punk, and he remains so to this day.

    Save your sadness for people who have gotten worse than they deserve. It will be time to forgive Bush when he provides an honest accounting and repudiation of the countless crimes commited on his watch and in his name, and not one second before. This, of course, means never.

  5. Thank you for these reflections Harold. So many important lessons here. I like your call to think about whether we are there for others during their Ground Zero moments as they were there for us. As it turns out, helping alleviate suffering in times of crisis is not only our duty as human beings, but it has the fringe benefits of creating friendships between individuals and countries and deepening our understanding.

  6. Dear Mr. Pollack,

    I appreciate the sentiment — the impulse for forgiveness. But I am not ready to give it to former President Bush, and even I were, I am not sure that I have the right to give it. Too many persons I know suffered from his failures and ill-considered decisions.

    Moreover, I take issue with the formulation that bin Laden conferred an artificial partisan mandate. That is simply too passive and excuses the President’s role. President Bush could have governed as a unifier. Instead he chose to seize partisan advantage from the situation.

  7. I’m fairly certain that the Bush presidency would have proceeded just about like it did had 9/11 not happened.

    His adminstration was already busily laying the groundwork for the WMD excuse to execute the neocons glorious vision of democratizing the world at gunpoint, starting in Iraq.

    On September 12th, Rumsfeld discussed using the attack as a casus belli to invade Iraq.

    The criminal mismanagement of the pursuit of bin Laden and failing to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan would, in a sane world, have caused Rumsfeld and perhaps even Cheney to resign in shame, if not be impeached; instead it was abandoned like the pretense they thought it was in their headlong rush to their real objective: war in Iraq.

    No, Bush is not a tragic figure, so much as a malignant one, the turning point when American politicians abandoned entirely any pretense of ‘country over party’, or ‘public good over quest for power’.

    ALL of them saw9/11 as a golden opportunity.

  8. Pres Bush had a moment to redeem himself, when, in June 2002 a floppy disk was discovered near the WH including a presentation point by Rove for taking partisan advantage of the war. Rove should have been summarily and publicly fired, and the Pres should have declared that there is no room for such considerations from people on the public payroll.

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