10 lessons we've learned in the 10 years since 9/11

September 7, 2011

It's been 10 years since 9/11, and of the countless lessons we've learned since then, here are 10 of the most important:

First, an open society invites attack. Not only do we present an abundance of targets that we cannot possibly defend, but America's openness is offensive to the repressive, the insular, and the intolerant.

Second, an open society won't be easily intimidated or vanquished. Terrorists deeply wounded New York City, but here we are, 10 years later, more alive, more confident, more open than ever. Democracy is a durable system.

Third, the issue isn't Islam, but rather religious extremism in any form -- Muslim, Christian or otherwise. When one group claims absolute certainty and the belief that all others are infidels or pagans who do not deserve freedom, then the inevitable next steps will be repression and destruction.

Fourth, common sense is the antidote to such religious extremism. Dueling faiths are not the answer, but rather an awareness that life has many struggles and no easy answers, that more people are decent than not and that things tend to work out when people are free to make choices. Mutual respect will accomplish more than victory in any sandbox.

Fifth, America is changing, and that's a positive thing. Change means life, room for new ideas and new generations, energy, optimism, and confidence. Many people fear change, but stifling change will crush the human spirit.

Sixth, leaders may get headlines, but people make the system work.

Seventh, even when we are under attack by nihilism, we know not to become a parody of ourselves. The World Trade Center towers were office buildings, not symbols of all that America means. They didn't even represent the fullness of New York City, not to mention Iowa or Idaho. Those were lives lost, not totems conquered.

Eighth, our government isn't being rendered dysfunctional by disagreements or ineptitude, but by a craven class of opportunists who use the suffering of others as a wedge to gain power for themselves. On 9/11, thousands poured into Ground Zero to help as best they could. Then came the politicians who turned a tragedy into a photo op, followed by bureaucrats who made the scene a turf war, and the bigots who used loss to ratchet up their demonization of others.

Ninth, phony patriotism won't vanquish the real thing. Americans didn't buy the "America first" xenophobia that followed 9/11, or the desire to wage holy war, or a crippling of rights and freedoms under the guise of "homeland security." Americans wept for America, celebrated freedom and openness, applauded heroism and sacrifice, but didn't rage for revenge.

Tenth, as mighty and wealthy as some want America to be, our strength is our values. The powerful and wealthy always want to compromise those values in order to aggrandize themselves. That is the great battle of American history.

And in that battle, the determination of the free to remain free; the determination of common citizens to cast their votes, educate their children, walk freely, and dream big; the determination of common folks to live fully, no matter how inconvenient it may be for the powerful and wealthy -- that determination is our enduring gift to a broken world.

-- Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

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