09/09/2011 01:10 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2011

Lasting Harm, Lingering Hope

Before the smoke had cleared from the 9/11 attacks, the nation faced a series of tests beyond the challenges of rescue and recovery. Almost immediately, Americans began asking whether we could stay true to our country's ideals while seeking justice and strengthening our security. Ten years later, how have we answered that question?

Unfortunately, we have mostly stopped asking. In a political season in which the Constitution is invoked in debates over health care, financial regulation, Social Security, and marriage equality, there is little conversation about constitutional principles when it comes to people who have been swept into the black hole of indefinite detention and limited legal protections. The spirit of national unity that flourished after the attacks seems to have been replaced in our public conversation with an angry divisiveness that too often devolves into open bigotry.

In 2001, then-President George W. Bush earned bipartisan praise for calling on Americans not to scapegoat Muslims or take out their anger on innocent individuals. Although some Muslims, and people mistakenly assumed to be Muslim, were targeted in apparent acts of reprisal, the tone set by the president -- and the recognition that people of many nationalities, ethnicities, and faiths were killed in the attacks -- helped to minimize vigilante violence.

Ten years later, that sense of inclusive solidarity can feel like a distant memory. Even though law enforcement officials say that Muslim communities have been their greatest allies in identifying extremist threats, some pundits and politicians have sought to inflame anti-Muslim bigotry with a dishonest campaign against the misnamed "Ground Zero Mosque" and a manufactured hysteria over the supposedly grave threat that Sharia law is about to supplant the Constitution. Right-wing figures have even claimed that Muslims are not protected by the First Amendment. The response from too many political leaders -- including Republican presidential candidates -- has been to embrace and reinforce, rather than denounce, this ugliness.

Bigotry like that threatens long-term damage to our common life and our increasingly pluralistic communities. The same kind of divisiveness is evident in our political culture. Too many opponents of President Obama go beyond challenging his policies to portray him as an un-American outsider committed to the nation's downfall, not only wrong, but evil.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney's book tour treats us to his enthusiastic defense of waterboarding, which was universally understood to be a form of torture until the Bush White House redefined it as something else. While the current administration has ruled out torture by the U.S. government, it has fallen short of bringing American policy in line with our principles. During the 2008 presidential election, candidate Barack Obama pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo and to try suspects in federal court. In the face of congressional opposition, those pledges have been abandoned. The fact that many post-9/11 policies now have bipartisan "ownership" has muffled voices of dissent.

Still, we reach the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with reasons for hope. The overriding goals of policymakers in the wake of the attacks were to bring to bring perpetrators to justice and prevent further attacks. There have been successes in disrupting terror networks and their financing infrastructure. Osama bin Laden has been killed. The U.S. has been spared a repeat attack on the scale of 9/11.

We also have reasons to reflect on continued challenges. Bombings in Europe, Africa, and Asia over the past decade -- as well as attacks on American troops overseas, foiled terror plots closer to home, and the killings at Ft. Hood -- have made clear that jihadist networks still have the will and the ability to harm American and allied interests.

At home, we still have some disconnects between our policies and our stated principles, and the idea that Americans of differing political outlooks could work together to advance the common good seems increasingly far-fetched. But it's not as impossible as it might seem in the era of high-volume Tea Party politics.

There is a reservoir of common sense and shared values that doesn't always make it onto cable television; the Tea Party may be loud, but it is an unpopular minority of the American public. Large majorities of Americans agree that the country was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, even unpopular groups. Most people reject the false notion that Muslims want to replace the Constitution with Sharia law. Most support a strict separation of church and state. Indeed, on a range of issues that speak to core American values of equality and justice for all, including marriage equality for same-sex couples and educational opportunity for the children of undocumented immigrants, the American public is far out ahead of the Congress. And that's even truer of younger Americans, who overwhelmingly embrace the diversity and pluralism that the loudest voices in American politics seem to fear.

The anniversary of 9/11 could end up being an excuse for empty political posturing, but it could also be something much greater -- an opportunity to renew the spirit of commitment to values like equality and shared sacrifice that prevailed, however briefly, before political strategists began using the tragedy as one more weapon in their cynical arsenal.

It is still possible for us to find ways to recognize that, in spite of strong political differences, we as Americans share the extraordinary good fortune to live in a free society, governed by a Constitution that deserves our respect and vigilance in its defense. With a bit of leadership that taps into most Americans' commitment to our nation's ideals, we can and will continue to make progress toward a more perfect union.