I thought about what I wanted to say on this Election Eve, when so much hangs in the balance, when we will either claw our way up from the abyss or hurtle further down into the depths of despair.
A few days ago I was reflecting upon the Bush presidency, and I realized that, particularly after September 11, 2001, he had the opportunity to step up to the plate and become one of the best presidents we have ever known. And he completely blew it. Whether because he was lazy or stupid or just drunk by the outpouring of unconditional support he received--the prospect of absolute power--is anybody's guess.
So here is what I would have said had I been in President Bush's position after 9/11/01. Here is what I wish he would have said, but more importantly, I wish he would have said this and then stuck with it.
But before I say it, two caveats. One, I know that I am not cut out to be president. I do not covet the position, and I do not contend that I could have done a better job than Bush (although I do believe it would be impossible to do a worse job). Two, it is quite possible, even likely, that what I have to say now is influenced by hindsight.
So, without further ado, here is my "If I Were President..." essay, by Mary D., age 24.
My fellow Americans...
I know that you look to me to lead you through this difficult time, that you will look to me and my administration to find out who is responsible for these attacks and to bring them to justice. This we will do to the best of our ability. But I ask you to remember, my fellow Americans, is that justice is not the same as vengeance. We seek those who committed these crimes to give them the treatment that they deserve--no more, no less. We will seek these monsters, but we will take care that, in the process, we do not become monsters ourselves.
I know that you are all hurt, frightened and angry. It is completely natural and understandable that you should feel this way, and I share these feelings. But we must rise over our fear, so that it does not compel us to cause even more pain. We must rise above our anger, so that it does not turn into hatred. Too many times in our nation's history we have acted in fear, in anger, and in hatred, and every time it has caused needless pain and suffering. Fear and anger caused us to go to war with Spain after the explosion of the battleship Maine in the Havana harbor. Fear and anger spurred Joseph McCarthy on a withch-hunting, Communist-seeking rampage. Fear and anger assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other civil rights activists and beat Matthew Shepard to death in Laramie, Wyoming. My fellow Americans, it would be easy to give in to our fear and anger, but it would also be castrophic. I know, and you know too, that innocent people would suffer needlessly because of it. Fear and anger are what caused the terrorists to hijack those planes and crash them into those buildings. We must rise above our fear and anger, and show the terrorists and the world that we're better and nobler than that.
I know that, after these attacks, you are concerned about your safety, particularly while flying. Let me assure you that we will work to prevent an attack like this from happening again, and that we will work to ensure the safety of the nation. However, we must not place our safety as a higher priority than our freedom. Our freedom was bought by blood; it cannot and will not be exchanged for safety. Too many men and women gave their lives to secure our freedom, including the men and women who lost their lives in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. We will not make a mockery of their sacrifice by abridging the rights that they died to protect, not even in the name of safety.
Following these attacks we as a nation have been more careful, more sensitive of what we say so that we do not cause even more unnecessary pain. It is right and proper that we should do this. However, do not forget that one of our most sacred rights is freedom of speech. I hope that no American will ever feel the need to defer a dissenting opinion. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." We must have free speech and a free press, or our democracy will not survive. Someone who blindly follows their leaders or blindly accepts their decisions is not a patriot. A patriot is one who speaks and thinks critically and openly about their leaders and their government. To paraphrase Voltaire, "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."
As we learn more about who is responsible for these attacks, let me make one thing very clear: we must not tolerate the persecution of law-abiding American citizens. Again, in our pain, fear, and anger, it would be easy to scapegoat Arab-Americans or Muslim-Americans, but it would not be just. These people are not your enemies; they are your friends and neighbors, your fellow Americans. Your enemies are just as much their enemies; perhaps more so, because the people who perpetrated these attacks in the name of Islam hurt these Americans by association; they give them a bad name. There should be no distinction of Arab-American or Muslim-American; we are all Americans, and when one group of Americans is persecuted we all suffer.
I cannot tell you what the future holds for America. We all look to tomorrow and the days ahead with uncertainty and trepidation. But we will do our best to heal our wounds. We will never surrender our ideals, and we will never stoop to hatred and violence. We will show the world that America is a great nation, a strong nation, a compassionate nation, and a nation of unshakeable principles.
Good night. I pray that God will bless you and all Americans.
Of course, were I actually to give this speech, I would proofread it more carefully.
Good night, and may God bless America...because we need all the help we can get.