The television networks are already beginning to replay those horrifying images of jet aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September 11. Even without viewing them again, most Americans have probably begun a sober reflection on what changes that day made for them and for the entire nation's character.
It is often noted that sometimes one can lose more from reacting poorly to a crisis than was lost when the crisis occurred. Within days of the attack, a few pundits and activists wondered if the very American freedoms that the terrorists loathed might be reduced by over-reactions from American citizens and political leaders.
In a column I did last November, I described a particularly noxious example of this from Ringgold, Ga., where the city council had voted to display in the main entrance of the city building a framed Ten Commandments poster, a framed Lord's Prayer manuscript, and on the opposite wall, an empty picture frame for what sponsor Bill McMillon called "people who believe in nothing." (The council decided to print the words "in recognition of those with other faiths" to mute the national criticism of the "believe in nothing" remark.)
The mayor of Ringgold, Joe Barger, had referred to the empty frame as "for those we do not know who they are." McMillon compounded the arrogance when a reporter asked about the message Ringgold was sending to religious minorities, including Muslims. McMillon replied, "We don't have any of them here."
How "free" would you feel as a Muslim to be treated fairly if you applied to work as a teacher or firefighter in Ringgold?
The Ringgold story has the seeds of a happy ending, however. Last June, Americans United and the Georgia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union sued to have the display removed. One of our plaintiffs chose to remain anonymous, fearful of his safety. The other plaintiff was a very vocal longtime resident, Thomas J. Odom.
Odom, a Vietnam veteran, had to look at the display every time he attended his Rotary Club meeting with other local businesspeople at city hall. His view, he told the Chattanooga Times Free-Press, "goes back to when I became an officer in the Army. I swore allegiance to defend the Constitution." Our local counsel for Odom, Georgia K. Lord, explained that her client felt the need to fight for our constitutional rights when his local officials decided to promote one religious tradition over others.
In mid August, the city council hastily called an "emergency" meeting to discuss the trio of plaques. Shortly thereafter, the display was quietly removed. Council members and other city officials, who were proud and boastful when the religious display went up, were suddenly shy. In fact, they refused to discuss the decision to remove the plaques.
We can safely assume that the lawsuit was the prime mover here. That's why I noted earlier that the Ringgold case contains the "seeds" of the best outcome. Vital and effective as lawsuits are, they don't always change the hearts or minds of the losing side.
The real test of a change in position is the sincerity of the change. In many parts of the country, we've seen some genuine instances of change over the last year. I know, for example, of some communities in which Jewish and Christian women, who had ignored or felt animosity toward Muslim women in their neighborhood before Sept. 11, began taking them along to do grocery shopping after the attacks. In protecting them from the isolation and taunting that might otherwise have occurred, they were vividly demonstrating a new view of the relationship between members of a community.
In Ringgold, politicians virtually under cover of darkness took down a display born of ignorance and hostility. They did so begrudgingly and wouldn't even concede why they made the choice. While they made the right choice, it is not enough for the forces of respect and tolerance to claim total victory.
As a reasonably optimistic person, I don't think it is inconceivable for Ringgold's mayor and council members to find ways to discuss the community's feelings about religious minorities honestly and constructively. Contrary to Mr. McMillon's remark, some people who are not of a Judeo-Christian persuasion just might even live there and could be active participants in such an exploration. (When the current Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roy Moore, once remarked that they didn't have any Buddhists in the state, he heard from a rather sizeable number of them.)
Cities and television networks are all planning "events" for Sept. 11 to commemorate the day. Several newspapers have contests urging readers to come up with the "best way" to observe the date. A few observers have even suggested that the way to send the strongest signal is to go to work or school, conduct business as usual and privately convey feelings of respect for heroism a kind of statement to the enemy that we have won because we can act "normally" again.
I think I'm somewhere in the middle. I doubt I'll attend any celebrations (with or without the singing of "God Bless America") or teach-ins on terrorism. But, I won't act like 9-11 is just another day, either. I will try to find a way to express my thanks to the founders of a nation that is slowly and painfully evolving toward a decent respect for the extraordinary diversity around us.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State.