I wrote this September 21, 2001, the day after hearing Walter Cronkite on Letterman.
Awakening to Our Responsibilities as Americans
21 September 2001
During this crisis following the attack on New York City and Washington, D. C., I have frequently heard people refer to that World War II quotation which says, in reference to the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor, that a sleeping giant has awakened. Those who use it mean it as a warning to our enemies, as a reminder of our actions in WWII.
But there is another sense in which the sleeping giant has awakened. September 11, 2001, was not the first terrorist attack in the world. For years, terrorists have slaughtered innocent men, women, and children around the world, spreading hate and suffering. Far too many of us have been happy to sit back in our complacency, happy in our wealth and privilege, secure in the safety of our freedoms and way of life. Those whispers of trouble in other worlds—slipping between the sports scores and weather, the local children’s pageant, Visa bills, tax hikes, fluctuations in the stock market—those whispers we so easily ignored. On September 11, 2001, those whispers became a scream that woke America from its complacency.
Thursday night, September 20th, I heard Walter Cronkite on the David Letterman show remind Americans of our obligations in a free world. Many of us were sleeping across America. It was midnight, it had been a difficult week, hard days lay ahead. So, many of us didn’t hear what he had to say.
Among the many things Walter Cronkite said that night, one important message highlighted our responsibility in the events to come. He spoke of the Allied liberation of prisoners from Nazi WWII interment camps. He spoke of the many German citizens horrified by the atrocities committed by the Nazis and soldiers in those camps. He spoke of the great pain the citizens of Germany felt when exposed to that great evil. And despite their horror and their empathy, Walter Cronkite condemned the German people as guilty for those atrocities. He said they were guilty, not because they had done anything wrong, not because they had known. They were guilty because they had not known.
In the days ahead our military, our government, our President will make difficult decisions. The consequences of those decisions will affect people across the world. And it is our obligation, our duty, our American right and responsibility to make sure that we know what actions they take. We cannot go back to sleep, we cannot pass off the responsibility for the actions of our military, our government, our President. This is America, where each of us bears the responsibility for the choices our country makes. And it is our responsibility, the responsibility of we, the people to make sure that justice is done, to make sure that, in our anger and our pain and our deep distress, we do not become the enemy. We are Americans, and we have an obligation, a moral and spiritual duty, to do the right thing.
This means, as Walter Cronkite so eloquently argued, that American journalists must accompany our troops, our forces, our leaders as they take on the task before us. Those journalists must exercise the restraint necessary to patriotic citizens not to report the news in a way that would endanger the men and women who will risk their lives for all of us, Americans and citizens of the world. And those journalists must act as the eyes and ears of the American people to ensure that our troops, and our forces, and our leaders act according to the strictest guidelines of morality, conscience, and the American spirit, where justice cannot be a word, a rallying call to war, but must be a living reality because it is that reality that defines who we are, that epitomizes what makes the United States of America unique among the nations of the world, both now and throughout history.
This awakening to our American responsibility must remind us of the spirit of giving and sacrifice that in the 1960’s prompted our then American President John F. Kennedy to challenge young Americans to give themselves to the world. In our complacency, in the safety of our security and material comforts, we have too often ignored the poverty and misery rampant in many of the countries of the world. The citizens of those countries, seeing our complacency and comforts, become easy prey to these charismatic terrorists who blame us for that poverty and for that misery.
Worse, there have been times when we have contributed, when we have been responsible for others misery and misfortune.
Sometimes in America, some of us forget our responsibility to each other, and acting in our own self-interest or reacting out of our own fear or inadequacy, we, too, commit acts of terrorism, acts of destruction. We have only to look at the burning of churches, the murder of Civil Rights leaders, the assassination of an American President, the attacks on abortion clinics, the Oklahoma bombing to find in ourselves the evil we have now committed ourselves to excising from the world. And we should not forget that those Americans who committed these atrocities believed themselves patriots, idealists, the hand of God.
And we have not just been guilty as individuals. In America, we have had, at times, to correct the excesses of our leaders. We have created, in this country, a system of government predicated on the necessity for checks and balances on power. We have created this system, not because we believe our leaders are unjust, not because we do not trust their integrity, but because we know that all of us are human with all the limitations and glories that that entails. We have created this system because we know that even the best of us can make mistakes, can react in anger without justice, can convince ourselves that we act in the interests of all as a cloak for our own selfishness. And our system of government, the American system of government allows us the opportunity–-and the responsibility—to right those mistakes, those excesses, those acts of selfishness.
And so, when American leaders, when American businesses and corporations, when American institutions and individuals of every stripe and affiliation act unjustly, we can call them to account. And we have.
But in our sleepy complacency, we have too often closed our eyes when those same mistakes, those same excesses, those same acts of selfishness–-committed by Americans–-have taken place outside the borders of these United States.
And so the nations of the world have sometimes focused on our inconsistencies and our failures instead of our strengths. They have seen our complacency as acquiescence, and as, Walter Cronkite reminds us, they have been right. And those inconsistencies, those failures have helped fuel the hatred that has now come home to our shores.
We should not be surprised at our failures. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who penned the words that “all men are created equal” while simultaneously maintaining the institution of slavery. After all, we are human. And our strength does not lie in our perfect way of life–-our strength lies in the incontrovertible fact that more than any nation in the world, we hold ourselves accountable.
Many changes lie before us. We the people of these United States of America will have to take action against an elusive enemy, an enemy who justifies its evils by the argued rightness of its cause. As Americans, we must do better. As Americans, we must remain awake. As Americans, we must hold each other accountable so that if one of us goes astray, the others can call him or her back.
We must avoid excess. We must, as much as is humanly possible, protect the innocent, whether those innocents are Americans, Palestinians, Iraqi, Afghani, or members of any nation, community, or religious or political belief. We must do this because as Americans we are committed to people’s rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to choose their own governance, freedom to make the best of their lives.
We must protect the innocent. We cannot generalize about those who are not in complete agreement with us. We cannot vilify those leaders who, living in a world that does not understand the freedoms that we hold dear, are just beginning to see the light—men like Yasser Arafat, who has, if slowly and hesitatingly, begun to change.
We must act. We must act with resolution, with courage, and we must act responsibly, we must act like Americans, we must act like people who truly believe in liberty and justice for all.
© 2001, 2014 Bill Stifler