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The 10th Anniversary of 9/11: A Unique Opportunity for Presidential Leadership

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During the next 10 days, national attention will be focused on our current unemployment crisis, highlighted by labor organizations' commemoration of Labor Day, and by the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Special attention will be directed at the White House and how it responds to both events. And, of course, all of this will be occurring within the long shadow of the 2012 presidential election campaign, occurring less than 14 months from now.

There is disquiet across the land. Issues of climate change, illegal immigration, joblessness, Planned Parenthood clinics, health care, public education, raising or lowering of taxes, insurance coverage for abortions, rising costs of increased incarceration, same-sex marriage, reduction of our national debt, and housing foreclosures are likely to be the subject of spirited, if not acrimonious, public debate and discussion.

The gridlock during the last congressional session and the positions expressed by candidates competing in the Republican presidential primary suggest that we, as a nation, may be at a special place. Our "Ship of State" appears to have a damaged rudder and a malfunctioning compass, requiring the exercise of special, overarching presidential navigation and leadership. The recent "amateur hour" brouhaha between the White House and Speaker Boehner over the scheduling of the date and time of a planned speech by the president announcing new, job-creating initiatives only compounds the impression that our ship is adrift.

The coming 10th anniversary of 9/11 may be just the occasion for such course correction to be considered and implemented. The 9/11 anniversary provides us with another Gabrielle Giffords moment: the Arizona congresswoman's attempted assassination and the killing of several people shocked the conscience of the nation, causing us to stop and reflect for a few days and consider who we are as a nation, as a society and as a civilized people.

Are we reverting to the mindset of a red-state/blue-state nation instead of the mindset of the United States of America? If so, we may need to revisit Grant Park in Chicago on the night of Nov. 4, 2008.

Commemorating 9/11 provides a unique opportunity for the exercise of a healing kind of presidential leadership, the kind of leadership that Candidate Obama asserted in Philadelphia in 2008, for example, when he courageously and forthrightly focused our national attention on the divisive and controversial issue of race relations in America.

Lest we forget, on Sept. 11, 2001, more than 3,000 people, citizens of over 90 countries, were killed by terrorists who attacked our country. This 10th-anniversary remembrance requires us to ask ourselves: what kind of country are we? Is that great endeavor that occurred in Philadelphia in 1787 "to form a more perfect union" under a written Constitution now obsolete? Are those magnificent precepts embodied in our Declaration of Independence no longer relevant or operative in the lives of Americans? Is 21st-century America to be defined by assuring that the federal government is the least consequential factor in the lives of average Americans? Are the words of the Declaration of Independence to be set aside to enable our government to reduce our national debt and balance our budget on the backs of our military veterans, the disabled, the poor and the elderly?

President Obama recently spoke to the National Convention of the American Legion. During his speech he recounted the service of our men and women in uniform during the 20th century and the past 10 years. His speech reminded me of a visit I had made to a V.A. hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. last March. The hospital is affiliated with the neurology department at Stanford University. Many servicepersons from across the nation with head, neck, back and spinal injuries from their deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are sent to the Palo Alto V.A. hospital for treatment.

The fight against al-Qaeda and others who seek to destroy us ceases to be abstract and impersonal when you see, speak and look into the eyes of 19- to 25-year-old men and women who have been seriously and often permanently disabled by their military service and sacrifice on our behalf.

Are we worthy, as a nation, of the magnitude of their sacrifice for us?

The 9/11 attacks were the apex of violence perpetrated against our country. This 10th anniversary provides us with a "teachable moment" to determine just what kind of nation we want to be: one dedicated to peace and non-violence, or one trapped in the pursuit of violence as a hallmark of our foreign policy? Domestically, is it unrealistic to expect that we could ever commit ourselves to personal conduct based on non-violent conflict resolution, instead of the promiscuous use of hand guns, to improve the quality of our lives?

Aside from TV and film clips and media coverage, most Americans have no real understanding or grasp of the reality of the horrors of 9/11. Each of us can probably remember where we were at 8:46 a.m. ET on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed the first airplane into the World Trade Center. To better understand and get a better sense, up close and personal, of the reality of what occurred when the planes crashed into the buildings, I strongly recommend reading Edie Lutnick's "An Unbroken Bond," an e-book that describes the human consequences of that attack. Lutnick wrote the book in tribute and as a commemorative memorial to the employees of Cantor Fitzgerald, the Wall Street bond and currency trading firm whose offices occupied floors 101 through 105 of One World Trade Center, just two to six floors above where the terrorists' plane struck.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald had 960 New-York-based employees. At the end of the following day, Sept. 11, 658 of those employees had been killed, including Gary Lutnick, the younger brother of the author and of Howard Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald.

Just as I did not comprehend the nature and scope of the personal sacrifice of young men and women wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until I personally visited them in the V.A. Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., without reading "An Unbroken Bond," few can appreciate, up close and personal, the magnitude of the consequences of 9/11 on the families of the Cantor Fitzgerald employees murdered that day.

I was so moved after reading the manuscript of Edie Lutnick's book that I asked whether I could write a forward to it. Among my comments I wrote:

There are some events, past and present, that challenge our ability to comprehend the magnitude of the human pain and suffering and the destruction associated with them: Auschwitz and Treblinka in the Holocaust, slavery in the United States, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, genocide atrocities in Rwanda and Serbia, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh, the terrorists' killings in Mumbai and the recent floods and tornadoes in several Midwestern states.



In our minds we separate unforeseeable acts of nature from intentional acts of violence by one person or group of people against another. However, in either case, it is difficult for us to wrap our minds around the enormity of the pain and destruction associated with such events.



The terrorists' airplane attacks against the World Trade Center in downtown New York on Sept. 11, 2001 challenge our ability to grasp and comprehend the enormity of the pain and horror experienced by fellow Americans as a result of that attack. On that day, approximately 3,000 people were murdered.



If one reads nothing else about 9/11, Edie Lutnick's "An Unbroken Bond" is a must-read. Poignantly and painstakingly, she lets the reader sit, like a 24/7 video camera, on her shoulder, as she offers her chilling account of being awakened by a phone call on Sept. 11, 2001 and her last telephone conversation with her brother Gary before he became engulfed in the flames and crumbling building in his effort to escape from his Cantor Fitzgerald office.



"An Unbroken Bond," unconditionally and without qualification, tells us that the greatest blasphemy, the single greatest sacrilege we could perpetuate concerning the events of 9/11, is forgetfulness.

The White House's "bully pulpit" still remains a formidable instrument in shaping public opinion. It has the potential of morally challenging America's soul and summoning our better angels. President Obama is not just president and CEO of our government; he is also a distinguished recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He can remind us not to forget the greatness of our nation and the values enshrined in our Declaration of Independence.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s receipt of his Nobel Peace Prize compelled him, as a Christian minister of the Gospel, to break his silence and speak publicly in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Commemorating 9/11 as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize confers upon President Obama a similar moral responsibility to "seize the time" and the moral high ground. To commemorate 9/11, he should consider a speech similar to his speech in Cairo, Egypt, similar to his speech on race relations in America in Philadelphia as candidate for president, similar to his address to the nation following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and similar to his recent speech to the American Legion Convention.

The anniversary of 9/11 provides us with the opportunity to reaffirm yet again that we are not just "red" states and "blue" states but a country of people comprising the United States of America, with shared values that include caring about the least of these.

If not President Obama, who? If not now, when?