THE BLOG
09/12/2011 08:28 am ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

Compelled to Look Back at September 11th

I did not want to think or write about September 11 this year, but if you live in New York City it has been hard to think about anything else. Like many New Yorkers, I remember that day, despite my best efforts to put it out of my mind. I remember that morning's clear blue sky, crisp near autumn feel and beautiful sunlight. Then I recall that unfathomable and truly monstrous act, the shocked disbelief, and the absolute silence as I walked on Broadway to check on my then 11 and 8 year old daughters at school. Like a zombie, I stopped at the cash machine in case there was more to come and I had to leave Manhattan with my children.

Looking up I saw the jet fighters circling Manhattan island and then realized they were the only aircraft I could see. A little later I looked out and saw white clouds of smoke and dust visible from my office window in Morningside Heights a little more than seven miles north of what we would soon call ground zero. Finally I remember the sense of immense sadness and of unbelievable and sudden loss. That feeling comes whenever I think about that day and that is why I hoped to ignore this anniversary and commemoration. But I could not. So as a policy analyst and a teacher, I struggled with that reality and turned to identify the lessons learned.

In the fall of 2001, my Columbia University graduate class in Public Management conducted a study of the government's immediate response to this horrific event. We eventually published an article in the Public Administration Review entitled "Catastrophe and the Public Service." We concluded that New York's state, local and regional governments did a magnificent job that day. People were safely evacuated from dangerous areas and schoolchildren were cared for until they could be reunited with their parents. Many, many New Yorkers helped each other. Rudy Giuliani, far from my favorite mayor, was inspiring that day and in the weeks that followed. While his subsequent misuse of those days for political gain makes me a little ill, I will always cut him some slack because at that critical moment he could not have been a better leader.

And so here we are a decade later. We find ourselves relieved when a building's vibrations are explained as an earthquake and not a bomb. We listen to the names read of those lost on that day, cry with the families still in mourning and gaze in awe at the beautiful memorial that now stands where the towers once stood. Watch as friends and family place their hands on the etched name of their loved one. Still, every time I leave New York I look at the skyline and pray that it will be there when I return.

Americans like me are not used to death and disorder. I have never lived in a war zone and I never want to. No one does. I know that people in many places face far greater daily threats than we do here. Perhaps it is that America is supposed to be different: A safe haven. My grandparents left the pogroms of Poland and Russia to raise their families in the American Promised Land. And so it has been. I suppose that the most disturbing lesson of 9/11 is learning that there are no safe havens. Evil never rests, terror is mobile and only vigilance provides a measure of safety.

The fundamental function of government is to provide safety and security for people within its jurisdiction. Given the rapidly advancing technology of destruction this is a difficult and expensive task. I know that it is not the only task of government, and clearly its costs still must be balanced against the costs of education, infrastructure, economic development and caring for poor, sick and old people. But 9/11 reminds us that security is fundamental. If our communities are not safe and secure, none of those other functions can be performed. I also think of environmental protection as equally fundamental and a primary function of government. If government does not ensure that our air, water, land and food are free of poisons, it doesn't much matter what else it does.

The irreducible job of government is to do all it can to protect citizens from harm. Of course in our complex, interconnected economy and society danger can come from many sources, and if we are not careful government can become an unwanted and unwarranted force overseeing our daily lives. Lower Manhattan is now watched by a network of over 2,000 video cameras. This is an intrusion on our civil liberties, but a necessary one to preserve our safety. Nevertheless, we need a mature and ongoing discussion of how much monitoring is acceptable -- and when and where it should be allowed.

The destructive and mindless ideological climate that has taken over our national politics makes it impossible for government to focus on these fundamentals. The public is sick of the nastiness, and it appears that message is starting to reach the corridors of the capital. Our safety and security depends on a national government that is capable of fact-based dialogue, compromise and action.

Tragedies like September 11th remind us of our shared destiny. People in other parts of the country sometimes think that New York City may not be on the same planet they live in, let alone the same country. Nevertheless, they know that the attack on New York City and on the nation's capital was an attack on America. The will to unite after that attack was clearly present a decade ago and we were reminded of that emotion this past Sunday. Unfortunately the nature of the attack made it difficult to know how to respond. While enhancing domestic security capacity seemed a reasonable approach, we were easily manipulated and lied to and ended up fighting a war in Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

Through the lens of emotion brought up by 9/11, I find myself trying to compare the economic problems we face today to the security threats we saw on the afternoon of September 11, 2001. The two are not comparable. But the same American government and people must address both pressing issues: economic sustainability and national security. I worry about the capacity of our government to shake loose of the parochial interests relentlessly advocated by those seeking short term economic or political advantage. Politics must somehow find a way to represent the national and public interest. The somber ceremony in lower Manhattan reminded us that we do not have the luxury of endlessly carrying our family fight out into the street. We need to figure out a way to live together under one roof. If we don't, we might end up losing the roof -- and everything else.