In the midst of our national sorrow, this calamity must become something from which we all learn.
It will be vitally important, of course, that the perpetrators of this violence and devastation be brought to justice. But it is equally important -- crucial, in fact -- to resist the calls from across the political spectrum and around the world for this brutal action to become an excuse to simplistically divide up the world into the forces of evil vs. the forces of good. What happened is not the fault of Muslims or Jews, reactionaries or revolutionaries. To frame the issue this way is to fall into the trap of those who committed these acts.
This was a defining moment for America because it brings home, as nothing has in recent memory, our inextricable ties to the world. We are not a "fortress." We are not invulnerable. The world's destiny is our own.
No one will "fix" the underlying problems that led to this terrible event for us. It is our task, as citizens, to take responsibility, to claim authority and to learn the skills for public problem-solving in an increasingly interconnected world. We all are responsible for addressing the immense tangle of problems that give rise to such violence -- the bitter religious conflicts and divisions of the Middle East, devastating poverty, threats to the environment, the AIDS epidemics, a new wave of slave labor and others. These issues are as real as terrorism, if sometimes less visible.
Rather than engaging in the world, certain elements in the Bush administration have been moving away from global cooperation on issues ranging from global warming to the 1972 treaty on germ warfare and the U.N. conference on racism this month.
Yet, even if the administration becomes more cooperative in its approaches to the world -- and there are certainly administration voices, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell's, pressing for more engagement -- the problems are too big to be solved by any single leader or any single administration. Government leaders certainly have a role. But citizens and civic institutions of all kinds, including higher education, must take responsibility for the hard work of building alliances, addressing complex problems, and dealing with people who make us uncomfortable or those with whom we disagree.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported an exchange between a man at a checkout line in a grocer store in Gross Point, Mich., who said, "Bush isn't going to stand for this. We'll take care of it. One plane and an atom bomb. That's all it will take." The cashier, giving a child a sticker, stood up, turned and asked the man, "Who are we going to drop it on?"
That's the question. The deeper problems can't be solved by clean and surgical strikes, or by any kind of expert military intervention.
The most inspiring and remarkable thing about Tuesday's events was the outpouring of civic energy from people from all walks of life. At the scene of the tragedies, while many fled, others came into Manhattan to offer help. Rescue crews, police and firefighters performed heroic acts to save people. Many lost their lives.
Lines for donating blood stretched around blocks all over the country. Religious congregations opened their doors for prayer vigils. Across the nation, people talked to strangers. Some reassured Muslims that they did not blame all Arabs. Many expressed the conviction that this is a watershed moment that helps us to understand we are not alone in the world.
"There's nothing but death in the air today," said a paralegal from New York. "(But) I don't want to hate anybody."
We need to use this occasion to build deeper ties and connections. And we need undertake the tough, collective, political work that can create a world of peace and flourishing democratic societies. In the deepest sense, this is exactly what citizenship is about. This tragedy also is an opportunity for us to rise to the civic challenge, as individuals, as institutions and as a nation.
Boyte, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, is co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.