The events of 9/11/2001 revealed two unalterable facts. The first of these is the fact that the American people are capable of demonstrating a truly inspiring level of solidarity. This lesson may be lost on those who aren’t old enough to remember 9/11, and didn’t witness first-hand the falling away of prejudices that have long divided Americans. It didn’t matter if a victim of the terrorist atrocity was black or brown, rich or poor, documented or undocumented; our hearts went out to their families. We shed tears for people we didn’t know personally.
The second unalterable fact is that fire fighters and police officers are heroes. On 9/11, 343 fire fighters and 60 police officers gave their lives to protect others, fully knowing the risks to themselves.
Yet, a young African American male who has an encounter with a police officer probably won’t be thinking about the heroism of those who gave their lives on 9/11. Instead, he will be afraid for his life.
The casual brutality of police officers toward African Americans is something that members of the African American community have been forced to accept for a long time. Owing to the ease with which cellphone videos can be shared over the Internet, the problem has only recently been brought home for the rest of us. Some of these videos show that when a police officer confronts an unarmed African American male (and sometimes, a woman or child), it only takes a few seconds for the encounter to go horribly wrong. Not enough time for the officer to employ negotiation or de-escalation strategies. Not enough time for the civilian to take stock of the gravity of the situation.
One could argue that, on the anniversary of 9/11, it is most appropriate to focus one’s thoughts and prayers on the heroes who gave their lives. But one could also argue that, by way of honoring the police officers who died, we should resolve to stand firm in our conviction that no police officer should be allowed to discredit the badge.
What Lincoln said at Gettysburg applies equally well at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan:
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The forgotten foundation of American government is solidarity. Solidarity depends on making no distinction between Americans on the basis of race or religion, nor on the basis of private beliefs and behaviors. Solidarity depends on a shared commitment to the idea that life, liberty, and property ought to be defended, and that by “property” we mean the rule of law: because it is the law that determines whether there is a right to ownership of land or other possessions, the law that determines whether there is a right to due process, and the law that determines whether disputes can be settled peacefully. The law is only a frail piece of paper unless the people agree to keep faith with it.