With liberty and justice for all: the America we must protect

Sunday, September 16, 2001
Cleveland Catholic Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, foreground, embraces Imam Fawaz Damra of Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland after both called for racial, ethnic tolerance at interfaith prayer service Sept. 13 at St. John Cathedral, Cleveland.

The day after.

From my office in Arlington, Va., I see smoke still pouring out of the Pentagon. Rescuers continue to risk their lives as hope fades for finding more survivors.

Day and night, desperate friends and relatives of victims stand near the wreckage here and in New York, praying for a miracle.

Millions of us join their vigil in our hearts. We offer prayers, fly flags, donate blood, send money, but we still feel helpless in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Words fail us.

America is forever changed.

It will be many weeks before we fully grasp the magnitude and implications of these horrific events. But we already know that life in our nation will never be the same.

Never again can we take our safety and freedom for granted. Terrorism is no longer a crisis that mostly affects people in other lands. Terrorism is now a fact of life in the United States, aimed at shaking the foundations of our republic.

What kind of nation will we be?

Much depends on how we respond to this supreme test of our national character. We can react in ways that restrict our liberties and divide our nation, or we can respond in ways consistent with the ideals and principles that define America.

Many of the early signs are heartening.

Who among us will ever forget the thousands of police, firefighters and medical personnel in Arlington and New York who rushed in to help — and in many cases sacrificed their lives? Or the images of countless volunteers, of long lines of people waiting for hours to give blood?

Consider also the resolve and unity of our national leaders. With one voice they resolve to defend freedom, but to do so in concert with our allies around the world and in ways that uphold our commitment to justice.

We are a caring people. We are a determined nation. This bodes well for the nation we will become in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Sadly, however, there are some Americans — let's hope it's a small minority — who are responding with hate and fear. Less than 20 hours after the first attack, I had already received e-mail messages condemning Islam and threatening violence. One writer called for the deportation of all Muslims “back to the desert hell holes where they come from.”

As I write this, news reports are coming in about death threats and violence directed at American Muslims. Bullets shatter the windows of a Texas mosque. Bricks hit an Islamic bookstore in northern Virginia. Vandals deface Islamic centers in various parts of the country. Muslim leaders advise American Muslims who wear Islamic attire to stay out of public areas for the immediate future.

This is the dark side of America — the America of militia movements, hate groups, white supremacists, anti-immigration zealots, race-mongers and religious extremists. These are the people who attack freedom in the name of freedom, much like the hijackers themselves.

Their numbers may be small. But if we aren't careful, if we don't speak out, the voices of hatred can infect the body politic in this crisis time.

That's why we need to be very clear that authentic Muslims could have had nothing to do with the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Those who carried out these murderous acts are evil criminals without conscience. Whatever religion they invoke in support of their “cause,” they do not, by definition, have anything to do with the genuine teachings of Islam, Judaism, Christianity or any other of the world's major faiths. These terrorists are no more “Islamic” than the killers in Northern Ireland are “Catholic” or “Protestant.”

Unfortunately, promoters of hate and fear ignore such distinctions. They exploit times like this by creating scapegoats and perpetuating false stereotypes. If we care about our nation, we must not let that happen.

The America we must defend in the coming weeks and months is the America of freedom and justice for Muslim Americans, Christian Americans, Jewish Americans or Americans of any other religion or creed. Defending the rights of all citizens is at the heart of what it means to be an American.

In the near term, we must find and punish the perpetrators of the attacks on our nation. And we must take all the necessary steps to prevent future attacks.

But in the long term, the best and surest defense of freedom is the practice of freedom.

As I write these words, I look up to see that the smoke has finally cleared at the Pentagon, exposing the gaping hole in the side of our nation's symbol of military might.

But then I look across the river and see the Lincoln Memorial gleaming in the afternoon sun. And I recall the words inscribed there, spoken during another great test of the American character and the American nation.

“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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