This essay was republished in a Tom Paine and on the op ed page of the New York Times on September 11, 2003
Still missing in the rubble of 9/11 is the idea of America that enriched, strengthened and protected us for more than two centuries. Overcome with fear and anger, and later in denial parading as pride, we hardly noticed it was gone. The idea that we lost was not a superlative — most powerful or richest — but rather a promise.
The wondrous mystery of America is found not in its perfection but in its ability to improve, its perpetual search for a more perfect union. The idea had been fading for some time, not just because we came to think of power as an adequate substitute, but because we came to ignore such mundane matters as teaching children democracy with the same vigor that we teach them how to drive or about the dangers of drugs. And so we tried to recover from 9/11 with a flag and loyalty to a place called America, but without its dream. We used instead military power, anti-democratic security measures, seductive technology, and yet another elephantine bureaucracy — offering still more temptations for guerrillas with simple weapons and no love of life.
The 9/11 attackers, and the tens of millions around the world who share some measure of their anger, have only seen our money and our fist — not the decency, democracy, and dream that made America strong in the first place. These virtues are still lying in the rubble of the past year. Our job is to recover them, revive them, share them, and become once more a model rather than a target. Only then will we be both safe and free.