Saturday, March 24, 2007


In early September, 2002, I was an active-duty Air Force officer in charge of a group of younger officers at a field training site, helping them learn their wartime roles and responsibilities.  As the senior person on that trip, I'd felt a responsibility to have something to say on the 9/11 anniversary, and had struggled to find something I felt would be worthwhile.  A few days prior to the 11th, somebody noticed some racist graffiti in a portajohn.  On the 11th, I gave this speech:

September 11th.  9-11.  Those words and numbers have become part of our vocabulary in the past year.  Life is more complicated now, or at least it feels more complicated to us, to we who have been so comfortable and secure for so long.  As we mark the anniversary of this date, I ask you to join me in reflection.

Let’s take a moment now and each in our own fashion, devote a brief prayer of serenity for those who were killed or injured on September 11th, those who’ve risked or given their lives in the recovery and in the war, and to all their many thousands of family members who most closely feel the sacrifices.

You are here this week to learn some of the assets and procedures you’ll use when called to join this fight, or the next one.  Learn them well, and make it your business to keep learning about them every year of your career.  We face an enemy with charismatic leadership and an inflammatory message of blind hatred, with no commitment to peaceful diplomacy, no respect for the lives and cultures of their victims.  That is a deadly combination, and once formed it can only be met with force.  This is our nation’s current task, and I’m proud to serve with you as we face it.

That’s the easy part of my comments.  We’ve all experienced this past year and we’ve all chosen to serve our country, so I know I’m preaching to the choir.  I’d probably have left it at that, if not for something that just happened a couple of days ago.  So here’s a challenge, a more personal one:  Not just as members of the Air Force or as Americans, but simply as people, to reject blind hatred and unthinking prejudice in all its forms, in all our words and actions.

The sad irony of this war is that it’s not new, and no culture can claim complete innocence of the human faults that led to it.  Unreasoning hatred of another group.  An implicit judgement that the lives and cultures of those who are different from us are somehow less valuable, less deserving of respect, than our own.  The blind determination to avenge past grievances, real or perceived.  We were shaken awake in horror one year ago when violence fueled by these human faults crossed our borders—yet history and the daily newspapers and sometimes even our daily lives are filled with other examples, great and small, and we as Americans, we as the West, are not always innocent.

A few days ago one of you noticed graffiti in a portajohn here on this site, here on a US Air Force installation, here in the midst of us, and reported it.  I will not dignify it by repeating the exact wording, but it said in effect to kill everyone of Middle Eastern descent.  As I scraped it off, I couldn’t help notice the parallel:  We’re shocked by pictures of angry young Middle Eastern men burning our flag and chanting “Death to America,” yet someone who is now or was recently on this site—one of us, one of our peers as we train to defend the nation against attacks driven by blind hatred—writes in the most offensive terms to “kill all of them.”

I too have my human faults, and the scars and experiences of a lifetime lived with others no more perfect than I am, and sometimes my thoughts are no better than graffiti.  Perhaps we cannot change our thoughts or undo our scars and experiences—but we can and must choose our words and actions.  Racist graffiti on a bathroom wall is not the same as the Crusades of the Middle Ages or slavery or Nazi Germany or a jihad against Americans.  But ask yourself, at its heart, inside one individual at a time, what really is the difference?  Is it a difference to be proud of?  Is it enough of a difference to make us think we’re better than those we now fight?

We are a great nation.  We owe it to those who came before us, whose sacrifices have given us the freedoms and privileges we now enjoy, to become even greater—to honor their efforts by continuing and expanding upon them.

Today, September 11th 2002, and for the future, I ask myself and all of you to remember those who’ve suffered.  To excel at our role in defending the nation from future attacks.  But also to reject blind hatred and prejudice—individually and for our institutions—in all its forms, in all our words, in all our actions.

As I look back on that day, now some years later and with the US mired in a military/political catastrophe of our own making, I hope future US leaders will give some thought to what happened to the sense of honor and justice we as a nation felt in 2002.  I wish for heroes.

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