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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Editorial: A nation taken aback pauses to look back Editorial: A nation taken aback pauses to look back (September 11, 2002)

Trauma of 9/11 elicits national anger, grief, patriotism, resolve -- and a growing concern about preserving the fullness of America's freedoms

The bells of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Palo Alto were to have tolled this morning at 8:45 a.m. -- the moment the first airliner crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower.

Those bells, and others across the nation, tolled for the thousands who died in the initial explosion and fireball, and in the catastrophic collapse of the towers -- 4,598 victims have been identified, including the innocent passengers and crew members of the commercial jetliners.

They tolled for the passengers of the plane who rebelled and died in the crash of their airliner in a Pennsylvania field, possibly saving the White House or the Capitol. And they tolled for the victims and families of the Pentagon attack, so often overshadowed by the New York catastrophe.

They tolled for 343 firemen and 60 police officers who rushed into the building, heedless of their own safety, to try to rescue those inside.

And they tolled for the many, many thousands of children, spouses, loved ones, friends and co-workers of those who perished.

The bells tolled for all those Americans -- and for those around the world -- who watched in horror and in unbelieving shock as the dreadful drama of that morning unfolded on television screens, often blurred by tears of the viewers.

It was an event that touched our lives, all of us, some more visibly and directly than others, regardless of distance from "Ground Zero."

Looking back a year later, the nation is now attempting to make some sense out of the senseless outrage, to describe in millions of words and countless images what is essentially indescribable.

A year ago, we noted that the courage of the rescuers who rushed to the aid of New York in its stricken hour -- including 67 members of the Menlo Park Fire District rescue team -- will go down as a great moment in time.

And we noted the overwhelming wave of solidarity that swept the nation, expressed in patriotic displays of flags, moments of silence, candlelit walks in the shadowed evenings of our great sorrow.

We knew it would not last, and that the nation must return to business, to the political dialogue on local, state and national levels, to the bustle and hustle of modern life.

But we hoped, and continue to hope, that the remembrance will make us the better for it, that the small traffic courtesies we exhibited in the days following the disaster might linger, that politics not be quite so petty, that people feel a bit more deeply the essential necessity for establishing and maintaining bonds with other human beings.

We should also remember that the shock went beyond America's boundaries, and affected persons of many nationalities and faiths -- resulting in spontaneous memorials and demonstrations of sorrow and empathy from both traditional allies and non-allies, such as Communist China and nations of the Middle East.

As we Americans wrapped ourselves in our flag as solace to our grief and symbol of our rage, we perhaps inevitably slighted the importance of that worldwide expression of empathy on Sept. 11, 2001. As we declared an open-ended War on Terrorism, we turned inward to flex our power and might, in an initial alignment with other nations that is now in doubt.

There have been successes -- a liberated (if still shaky) Afghanistan, tightened but still humanly imperfect security at home, and a more powerful realization that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

At the same time, we are surrendering in the name of war a number of our cherished protections of freedom. Some losses are open and reasonable but many are cloaked by secrecy as federal agencies hone their abilities to monitor everyone in the name of catching the few, and enlist local community police departments and others in the tightening web of security -- as outlined in our cover story in this issue.

We must as a nation and society remember that our cherished freedoms of expression, movement, association, privacy, and open government and courts also have to be defended with zeal and vigilance. These freedoms have been the guiding principles of our nation, and the source of the great light that has made America a beacon to millions around the world.

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals noted in ordering the federal government to open 9/11-related deportation hearings to the press and public: "Democracies die behind closed doors."


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