Nine years ago today America was attacked by a group of brainwashed Islamic xenophobes who believed they were doing God’s work in killing thousands of innocent Americans. Innocent is a relative term, but nothing can justify the actions of the 19 hijackers and those that planned, funded, and aided in the attacks.
I was sitting in a military classroom when news of a second aircraft colliding into the World Trade Center broke and I distinctly remember the thoughts of unbelief, horror, and anguish that ran through my mind that day.
President Bush, in an address to the country days after the attacks, asked Americans for their “continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” Although I admire Mr. Bush for the leadership he displayed in unifying the country in the days and weeks following 9/11, I often wonder what would have happened if instead of telling Americans to go out and shop, he called the American people to public service and to world travel, showing the perpetrators of the attacks and indeed the entire world, that America would continue to lead the world by example.
First, let me discuss public service. I don’t believe a national public service requirement is permitted by the Constitution, but I like the idea of a voluntary service initiative. Giving back to your local community, state, or country in various modes of public service not only builds character, it fosters true (not merely flag waving) patriotism and produces tangible results that strengthen the nation and all of her citizenry. Had I been advising President Bush or on his speechwriting staff, I would have implored him to appeal to the goodness and charity of the American people to reach out and help friends and neighbors, to volunteer, and to ask (as trite as this sounds) “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Such a charge may sound odd just days after we had been attacked, but Americans were yearning for a way to respond to the attacks and nine years later I must conclude that a wave of public service would have been a better response than shopping or foreign occupation.
The term “ugly Americans” (referring to loud and obnoxious Americans traveling internationally) has always rubbed me the wrong way. I run into a lot of Americans when I travel and I very rarely witness tawdry behavior. I have traveled to many Muslim nations the last few years and talked to many who think of Americans as imperialistic, indulgent, arrogant people, yet admit that they never have known one personally. There lies the problem. If the American media is correct, a whole generation in Saudi Arabia is being brought up to believe that the United States is “the great Satan” yet many will never actually meet an American due to the Kingdom’s “no tourist” policy.
Witnessing angry protests over the placement of a mosque in a country with religious freedom or threats of burning the holy book of a religion out of spite rub me the same wrong way. I submit that people need to get out more. Traveling internationally has transformed the way I interact with people and changed my outlook on cultures and regions all over the world. I have been humbled, awed, and sometimes distressed by what I run into, and travel has made helped me to mature tremendously.
I am not so naive to think that we’d all “get along” if everyone just traveled a little more, but I am positive that if more people visited the United States (an increasingly unpleasant thing to do these days thanks to the Department of Homeland Security) more people would see that the while there is always some truth to every stereotype, we are a diverse and vibrant people who in many ways are not that much different than others. It is not about getting others to like us, it is about showing them how we live and why most of us in the States are proud to call America our home.
By the same token, if more Americans left the friendly confines of the United States and explored the vast world around them, I don’t think we’d have to worry about Muslims being scapegoated in a way eerily reminiscent of way Jews were initially treated in Nazi Germany.
Readers of my blog know that I lament often about the knee-jerk response of the U.S. government to the 9/11 attacks, particularly in the creation of the Transportation Security Administration and the draconian screening methods we endure when we travel, but I will refrain from discussing that today.
Nine years later, America is more divided than we were prior to 9/11 and we have more enemies abroad as well. This problem is not going to be solved overnight and it may never be solved, but I maintain that national service and world travel offer tremendous returns for the investment required and may be the best way we can triumph over those who wish to harm us.