Dr. Steve Frank is the Chief Interpretive Officer at the National Constitution Center.
When President Obama announced on Sunday that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan by U.S. forces, he said something that reminded me of a story I haven’t brought to mind in years, but which seems appropriate to relate today.
In informing the nation of bin Laden’s death, the President recalled how on September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. Looking back over the struggles of the past decade, he honored the service and sacrifice of those who have protected our security since the 9/11 attacks claimed nearly 3,000 lives. And looking forward, he predicted that, in the continuing fight against terrorism, “We will be true to the values that make us who we are.”
It was that last phrase that reminded me of the story.
September 11, 2001
I am an historian at the National Constitution Center, where I began work on September 10, 2001. My first assignment the next day was to pick up an original printing of the Constitution that we were acquiring for display. It was our first and most precious artifact and would be a crown jewel in our exhibition when the museum opened in 2003.
On the morning of the attacks, I called the donor to be sure that he wanted to keep the appointment. He did. So I set out to find his office in Flourtown, just outside the city.
As I drove, I had to stop repeatedly for directions. I spoke to a waitress in a diner, to a gardener mowing the lawn of large estate, and others. And everyone I encountered needed to speak about what had happened. The coming together that President Obama recalled was palpable. Everywhere I stopped, I felt a deep sense that whatever had happened we were in this together.
That feeling found expression in countless ways in the days and weeks that followed. Flags began to fly on porches in my neighborhood where they had never been. At the museum, I later received a donation of flag posters to distribute to visiting school children. The donor, a printer in New Jersey, told me how, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the red, white and blue ink flowing through her plant’s printing presses had been a soothing sight, assuaging a little the grief she and her workers shared.
After arriving at my destination on 9/11 and taking possession of the Constitution, I brought it home for the night, because our offices were closed. The next day the still-small staff of the Center, about a dozen of us, gathered in a conference room. Everyone had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first treasure and wanted to see it.
On any other day, there would have been loud congratulations, but on this day we just stood there. The room was completely silent. And in the silence, the significance of my previous day’s errand sank in: The grief that brought us together on 9/11 was not what really united us. The document in front of us was the true source of our unity, the embodiment, in President Obama’s words, of “the values that make us who we are.”
Working at the Center for nearly a decade now, I have relearned that lesson many times and in many ways.
When the time came about a year later to write the 9/11 story for the Center’s Core exhibition, we debated how to tell it. We decided that the day of the attacks was not our moment; our moment was March 11, 2002, when the tribute light columns where the Twin Towers once stood were first lit. Those beacons in the night, not the burning towers, represented who the Constitution makes us, a people whose shared hope for their country is grounded in a set of ideas about justice, equality and liberty.
In the coming weeks, as the triumph of this moment begins to fade, and the unity we feel now, like the unity we felt then, fades with it, we will begin to argue again about how those ideas apply to our present situation.
Already there have been calls for a “post-9/11” commission to recalibrate our response to the ongoing threat of terrorism in light of Osama bin Laden’s death. Are the national security state we have created and the wars of occupation we fight the appropriate guarantors of our security?
Bin Laden’s demise puts a period at the end of a sentence and brings with it a unifying sense of justice finally served. But on the scales of history, how we disagree with one another about its significance going forward will be weighed as well.