An unhappy anniversary

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison reflects on the September 11 anniversary.

(Robison) It will be three years ago tomorrow. Rarely, indeed very rarely, is there an event that is so seared into the minds and emotions of so many.

It is too soon to know what the long-term implications may prove to be for life in America. Knowing just what the long-term implications are is made more difficult because there is so much swirling around the body politic; so many people, especially politicians, with agendas that really have little to do with the grievous events of three years ago. It is too soon to know.

But it is not too soon to reflect on the ways in which that day has changed us — the American people. My sense is that the most dramatic changes long-term have to do with the immeasurables.

There are of course a host of horrifying and tragic statistics from that day, most having to do with the appalling loss of life and property.

There is a great deal, however, that can be neither quantified nor measured.

It is not possible to measure, for instance, the toll taken on that basic American optimism that has been a hallmark of American life — the kind of optimism that assumed beforehand that we would indeed put men on the moon, or that there was a cure for polio, or that a cure for cancer will be found and maybe even a cure for the common cold on and on.

One of the distinguishing American characteristics has been the near universal belief among Americans that there are no insoluble problems. That is now severely challenged. We do not yet know the toll on that deeply ingrained optimistic assessment of the future on which so much of American culture has thrived.

Also, there can be little doubt but that the traditional openness of the United States has been set back, maybe for the long, long term. There are now legions of stories that underscore the institutionalizing of fear, institutionalizing suspicions of people who look different from some vague norm. It is made more pronounced because it is irresistible for some politicians to build their careers on that fear. And that in turn of course accentuates the fear.

A major part of America’s growth, of its unrivalled accomplishments in virtually every area of human endeavor, from the arts to the sciences, has been attributable to the welcoming embrace this country has offered to people from all over the rest of the world. This has been true from the very beginning, generation after generation.

But, alas, there is no question but that part of America’s attractiveness has been set back badly. America as the beacon, as the city on the hill, is now less welcoming and, sadly, less attractive as a goal, as a career destination, to many of the world’s most talented young people. We will never know what price we will have paid on this front.

And so, as we approach this unhappy anniversary in somber reflection — it sadly must be with the realization that it will be a long time before we know the real impact of that dreadful day.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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