America must maintain its will and moral courage in a post 9/11 world, says FPI Executive Director Jamie M. Fly

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Earlier this week, I found myself wandering around Grosvenor Square in the upscale Mayfair district of London. Grosvenor Square has strong historical ties to the United States – it was there that John Adams first established an American diplomatic presence in London in the 1780s, and the American embassy now sits on its western edge. Several statues of American leaders grace the park that makes up the inside of the square. Older statues of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eisenhower were recently joined by a statue of Ronald Reagan, unveiled in July as part of the Reagan centennial celebrations.

On the opposite end of the square from the embassy sits a beautiful September 11 memorial garden, dedicated on Sept. 11, 2003. This garden includes a wall engraved with the names of British citizens killed in the attacks, and a row of wooden benches beneath a vine-and-flower-covered trellis. The scene allows a quiet sanctuary for private reflection.

On a rainy, windswept London day, I stood in front of the wall that bears the inscription “Grief is the price we pay for love,” and saw that several bunches of fresh flowers had been placed at its base. One appeared to have been left there by tourists, with a London postcard attached. One in particular drew my attention: Attached to it was a photo of a middle-aged man with a big grin on his face. His love for the person taking the photo was immediately evident from his expression. His birth date and his death date – Sept. 11, 2001 – were written above the photo.

Seeing this small personal memento of grief and heartbreak ten years after the events of that day reminded me of the way many of us felt in the days that followed the attacks, even those without a personal connection to a victim. We read of people making frantic calls to loved ones, of the passengers on United Flight 93 taking matters into their own hands to save fellow Americans they didn’t even know, and of the first responders, who charged into the chaos and uncertainty without regard for their own safety.

Most disturbing at the time was the fact that, for weeks, the papers were filled with account after account of regular men and women who got up that beautiful clear morning and kissed their loved ones goodbye, never to return home, a reality that Bruce Springsteen hauntingly sung about on his album The Rising: “Shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall, Mama’s in the kitchen, baby and all, Everything is everything, Everything is everything, But you’re missing.”

Our collective heartbreak gave the country the moral courage for the task that followed – in the words of President Bush at the Sept. 14, 2001, prayer and memorial service at the National Cathedral, “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

This mission took us into Afghanistan in Oct., 2001. We toppled the Taliban and eliminated the safe haven from which al-Qaeda had plotted to kill us. As a result of our action, Afghan women were freed from the tyranny of the Taliban’s merciless rule and more than 25 million people were given a new lease on life and the ability to chart their own course.

After the attacks of September 11, our leaders were faced with the specter of nightmarish scenarios that could play out at any time. What if, instead of using planes as weapons, al-Qaeda got its hands on biological or nuclear weapons? What if, instead of 3,000 dead, there were 30,000 or 300,000?

Such concerns about the intersection between rogue states and terrorists interested in acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) led to our invasion of Iraq in 2003, during which we toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Mistakes were certainly made in estimating Saddam’s WMD capabilities and in the postwar planning. But as a result of the fortitude shown by President Bush in the waning years of his administration, Iraqis now have the potential to live lives previously unimaginable under Saddam’s iron grip. Once again, in part as a result of our tragedy, America turned grief and sorrow into new life and opportunity for millions of people.

The political debates about national security since 9/11 have been fractious and heated. But we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to acknowledge how much progress has been made in protecting Americans from another catastrophic attack, as well as in using the aftermath of tragedy to reassert our core values, just as many of those great Americans now memorialized in London’s Grosvenor Square did in their own time.

At the base of the statue of Ronald Reagan unveiled in July is a placard with several quotes by and about our 40th president. The first, which caught my attention the day just before I visited the 9/11 memorial garden, is a quote from Reagan’s first inaugural address: “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.”

That will and moral courage are what sustained us in those dark days after 9/11, as they have at other key moments in our nation’s history. They are what has helped us to turn tragedy into freedom and opportunity for millions over the last decade in the wake of immense tragedy.

In commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we will not do that day justice unless we take time to remember the stories of those who died, and the inspiration that their lives gave us in the days and years that followed.

Even as we are currently preoccupied with political debates about problems at home, we need to remember that America should continue to stand for something more, something greater than ourselves.

As we confront the challenges and opportunities that remain across the globe ten years after 9/11, we must not lose sight of the fact that, if we have the will and the moral courage of our predecessors, we can continue to change the world for the better and confront evil wherever it resides. We’ve made great progress in the last ten years, but much work remains to be done.

-Originally written for National Review Online

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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