Hard but Enduring Lessons

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

For those of us who were in office on September 11, 2001, it is as if time was suspended. For us and for the victims’ families, every day since then has been September 12.

Our sense of what constituted security and what it takes to protect the country was irrevocably altered. The United States, the most militarily and economically powerful country on earth, had experienced a devastating attack. And it had been carried out by a stateless band of extremists, operating from the territory of what was at the time a failed state, Afghanistan.

In the months after the attack, we reflected again and again on the deeper causes. What could provoke the hatred that led people to fly airplanes into buildings on that bright September day?

Ten years later, it is clear that 9/11 made encouraging democracy and supporting political institutions a global necessity.

In 2002, a group of Arab scholars at the United Nations issued the Arab Human Development Report, identifying three gaps—respect for human freedom, women’s empowerment and access to knowledge—that are holding back the progress of millions of people. And these gaps do even more harm: they cause the hopelessness that in turn creates a vacuum into which extremism and hatred flow.

This is the link between what happened on 9/11 and the urgency of democratic reform throughout the Middle East. For sixty years, the United States sought stability at the expense of democracy in supporting authoritarian regimes. We should have known better.

If people have no way to hold their governments accountable through peaceful change, they will do so violently.

There is a reason that extremists are the most organized political forces in the Middle East today. Authoritarians did not permit politics in the public square and thus “politics” went instead into the radical mosques and madrassas.

Now decent political forces—those that will defend women’s rights and religious and ethnic tolerance—will need the time to organize themselves to fill the void. Authoritarianism is simply unsustainable. As difficult as the journey to democracy may be, it is the only pathway to true stability.

The eruption of the Arab spring, along with the killing of Osama bin Laden just a few months before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, bring together the lessons of that devastating day. Extremism will wither as people gain legitimate means to control their future. I do not believe that extremism will win when the public square allows the open debate of ideas.

Political institutions will come into being—weak at first, but ultimately necessary to define the relationship between the authority of the state and the rights of the individual.

In Baghdad and Kabul, citizens are trying to use their new democratic institutions to secure better lives as free men and women. That road is long but at least they are on their way with constitutions that define the relationships between those who govern and those who consent to be governed.

The people who are experiencing glimpses of freedom in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and across the Middle East have just begun to build the institutions that will secure their liberties. And in some places, dictators are fighting to hold back the day when they will fall. Freedom can be delayed but not denied.

Since 9/11, we have come to understand that no country can secure itself in isolation and that helping failed states heal is no longer simply a matter of largess. It is now a necessity.

Consequently the United States has pursued a foreign policy that is as practical as it is compassionate and transformative: we encourage economic and social development, we promote the empowerment and protection of the vulnerable, and we strive for a civilized and ultimately more peaceful world.

These ideals transcend political parties and form the basic core values for which American democracy stands and those that we, as American citizens, represent.

Those who perished on 9/11 continue to be honored by family and friends, and by fellow citizens and sympathetic people around the world. The lives lost can never be regained. Grieving parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters will never quite be whole again.

But perhaps there is some comfort for them—for all of us—in knowing that there was far greater meaning in the horrors of that day. Because of the fortitude of the United States, 9/11 is not a day that reminds us of defeat or vulnerability or a global power’s supposed decline.

It is a day that rallies us, in tragedy and in victory, to declare that freedom will prevail. Many of us have been blessed with God’s gift of freedom. It is our responsibility and our work never to tire until it is universally enjoyed.