ISIS, 9/11 and Rebuilding

Tonight, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, President Obama will speak to the nation about how the U.S. can deal with the threat of ISIS. Given the timing, I can't help but wonder whether the tragedies of 9/11 even speak to us anymore? To answer that question, I think of my good friend and college roommate Frank Reisman who lost his life that day in one of the Twin Towers.

At this time of year, I have frequently returned to write about my memories of Frank, even though I think of him often. On that dreadful day he was killed, I remember sitting in my home trying to write a new book on civic faith when my wife called to tell me to turn on the television. Like so many others, I witnessed the plane hit the tower and watched as people jumped from the buildings. And then I waited to find out the fate of my friend.

I'll be at home tonight with my wife to watch the President's speech about the nation's response to ISIS. I'll do so with certain questions on my mind, amid a host of swirling emotions. Like many Americans, I was revolted by the recent beheadings of two U.S. citizens. I too want to know the retribution and the steps that can be taken to make the world safer.

Ever since 9/11 we have faced an existential threat of terrorism. As we move forward, I want to know the following: How is it that we as a nation seek to lead not only with our military might, but with our enduring values?

How is it that we stand for what we are for, and not simply what we are against?

Here at home, when will we turn away from tearing one another down – a reflex which we see once more in the current political discourse on ISIS and the Middle East – and become builders again of a path that engenders a sense of possibility and hope for all Americans?

We can jump from crisis to crisis, and even succeed in addressing them, but still not forge ahead in a way that reflects the better angels of our nature. And we can tamp down violence, and yet still not create something different.

Let us respond to the threats before us, but let us do so in ways that help to build something that is rooted in our aspirations for moving forward, not simply our fears of the moment.

I often think about what Frank's last moments might have been like. It's a horrific notion. Since that time, the Freedom Tower has replaced the Twin Towers. But what will we replace the current destruction with? How can we also show that we are builders?