We'll go forward from this moment

Leonard Pitts, from the Miami Herald (Wednesday, September 12, 2001)



It's my job to have something to say.


They pay me to provide words that help make sense of that which troubles the American soul. But in this moment of airless shock when hot tears sting disbelieving eyes, the only thing I can find to say, the only words that seem to fit, must be addressed to the unknown author of this suffering.


You monster. You beast. You unspeakable bastard.


What lesson did you hope to teach us by your coward's attack on our World Trade Center, our Pentagon, us? What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that you failed.


Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause.


Did you want to make us fear? You just steeled our resolve.


Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.


Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless. We're frivolous, yes, capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae -- a singer's revealing dress, a ball team's misfortune, a cartoon mouse. We're wealthy, too, spoiled by the ready availability of trinkets and material goods, and maybe because of that, we    walk through life with a certain sense of blithe entitlement. We are fundamentally decent, though -- peace-loving and compassionate. We struggle to know the right thing and to do it. And we are, the overwhelming majority of us, people of faith, believers in a just and loving God.


Some people -- you, perhaps -- think that any or all of this makes us weak.


You're mistaken. We are not weak. Indeed, we are strong in ways that cannot be measured by arsenals.




Yes, we're in pain now. We are in mourning and we are in shock. We're still grappling with the unreality of the awful thing you did, still working to make ourselves understand that this isn't a special effect from some Hollywood blockbuster, isn't the plot development from a Tom Clancy novel.


Both in terms of the awful scope of their ambition and the probable final death toll, your attacks are likely to go down as the worst acts of terrorism in the history of the United States and, probably, the history of the world. You've bloodied us as we have never been bloodied before.


But there's a gulf of difference between making us bloody and making us fall. This is the lesson Japan was taught to its bitter sorrow the last time anyone hit us this hard, the last time anyone brought us such abrupt and monumental pain. When roused, we are righteous in our outrage, terrible in our force. When provoked by this level of barbarism, we will bear any suffering, pay any cost, go to any length, in the pursuit of justice.


I tell you this without fear of contradiction. I know my people, as you, I think, do not. What I know reassures me. It also causes me to tremble with dread of the future.


In the days to come, there will be recrimination and accusation, fingers pointing to determine whose failure allowed this to happen and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. There will be heightened security, misguided talk of revoking basic freedoms. We'll go forward from this moment sobered, chastened, sad. But determined, too. Unimaginably determined.




You see, the steel in us is not always readily apparent. That aspect of our character is seldom understood by people who don't know us well. On this day, the family's bickering is put on hold.


As Americans we will weep, as Americans we will mourn, and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish. 


So I ask again: What was it you hoped to teach us? It occurs to me that maybe you just wanted us to know the depths of your hatred. If that's the case, consider the message received. And take this message in exchange: You don't know my people. You don't know what we're capable of. You don't know what you just started.


But you're about to learn.



Addendum by Jonah Begone


I certainly hope so. These days rhetoric is easily confused with action.


Taking a deeper historical perspective of things, the writer of the piece above might have added:


- In 1775 Britain's professional soldiers, in the finest army on the planet at the time, dismissed Americans, calling us "Yankee Doodles." In 1781 Lord Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington, while his regimental fife and drum corps played "The world turn'd upside down."


- In 1860, Americans from the Southern states thought Northerners would give up at the first gunshot, and Americans from Northern states thought a simple and brief display of Federal power would cause Southerners to give up. Four years later, after more than 600,000 casualties, both learned something about American resolve.


- At the beginning of the 20th century Woodrow Wilson campaigned and won the presidency on a promise to keep America out of the European war. When Americans learned of plots against it by the Germans, we furnished troops and the war ended, preserving democracy in Europe.


- On December 7th, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Admiral Yamamoto correctly stated, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Winston Churchill, a student of the American Civil War, knew that once America had entered into the war it was but a matter of time before the Allies would prevail. In 1945 the people of Japan felt the terrible beginning of the Atomic Age.


- In the 1960's, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised, "We will bury you." In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and a year or two later the longest sustained economic growth in the history of America began.


- In 1990 Sadaam Hussein, in an apocalyptic turn of phrase which many found frightening, promised "the Mother of all Battles." In an astonishingly short amount of time later, the army of Iraq, the fourth largest standing army in the world at that time, was surgically cut up and in full rout on the road to Baghdad.