I have been stopped by the police a number of times in my life. Once, it was because I was actually speeding. Once, I was jaywalking. Once, I made an illegal turn when I was new to town and couldn’t see the “no U-turn” sign in the twilight. Once, it was because somebody didn’t renew the registration or fix a tail light on the car I was driving. A couple of times, to be honest, I did not actually do anything wrong. On one of those occasions, I was legally carrying a concealed firearm on my person at the time and told the officer as much as required by law in that jurisdiction. In not one of those encounters did I ever feel like my life was in danger. I was never asked to step out of the car, never forced onto the hood or to the ground, never put in cuffs, never put into a squad car, never taken to the station. I got a ticket or maybe a warning and went on my way. Obviously, I always made it home safely.
I know and care about far too many people, though, for whom every one of those incidents would have been understandably terrifying. People who drive by the book but have been stopped far more often than I. They were stopped for entering a college campus where some officer thought they didn’t belong or for leaving it, for being in too nice a car, for being in too ugly a car, for dressing too well, for dressing too casually, for driving too slow, for driving too fast, but really, if we’re honest, for “driving while black.” And in many of those incidents, it was far from clear that all would end well. After all, so many such incidents don’t.
There are many good things about the history of the United States of America, things we should celebrate. How this country has treated and thought about people who are not “white,” however, is not one of those good things. That has always been and remains to this day a story of horrific evil, with shockingly few moments of partial redemption.
You say we have made progress? That’s true, but from what starting point? You say we have to “move on” or “give it a rest?” I doubt very much that you would feel the same if you, your parents, or your children regularly felt fear for their lives and freedom based solely on skin color. No, it’s not the 1760s, 1860s, or 1960s. That’s not the point. The point is that injustice still abounds. If you overlook injustice on the grounds that “things used to be worse,” all you’re really saying is that a particular level of injustice is okay by you.
I can’t always speak to current events. Being an attorney (or at least, trying to be an ethical one) means that I have to be very careful what I say, especially about particular cases. But I can say this.
It’s never necessary for four able-bodied men to choke to death a man who is laying on the ground in handcuffs.
It’s never reasonable for anyone, including the police, to deploy deadly force just to respond to an alleged forgery in progress or an alleged instance of public intoxication.
There really are differences in how people are treated by law enforcement and the justice system based on skin color. There just are. There are countless men and women of all races who serve honorably in law enforcement and in our entire legal system. Yet the fact remains that it is much safer for me to encounter law enforcement than it would be if I simply had a different color skin. Why is that?
We all need to speak up.
We all need to care.
Those of us who haven’t been on the receiving end of injustice all need to start listening. You may not agree with literally everything another person says, but if you actually care you will listen.
And then, if you really care, you will do something.
Like so many people today, I’m reflecting on the events of that awful day 17 years ago when so many innocent people died, and so many more felt the world had turned upside down. Every American who was old enough to remember that day will probably be processing their reactions to those events for the rest of their lives.
I have very rarely said anything public about 9/11. I have several reasons for this. The biggest reason is that my own experience of that day was very unusual.
Far from Home
I don’t have the same kind of “where were you when” story that most Americans have, for the simple reason that I wasn’t here. I had left the United States five days earlier, and I was in Germany for a week-long training conference. When I first got word that something had happened, I was playing a pick-up game of basketball at a private conference center in a very small village in the German countryside, largely cut off from the world.
The first indication that something was wrong was when somebody ran by on an elevated walkway, yelling urgently. I couldn’t quite make out the first sentence; I think it was, “There’s a fire in New York.” The next is seared into my memory: “The World Trade Center is in the street.” And just like that, the runner was gone.
It took a couple of minutes for those of us on the court to decide what to make of this. We didn’t even fully agree on what we had heard, much less what it meant. Several of us thought it meant that there had been some sort of market crash or economic disruption; others thought it meant the WTC’s occupants had evacuated because of a literal fire. After a few moments, we decided to call the game and go looking for more information.
The Hunt for Information
It took a while to find any. First, we had to find other people. But when we did, no one actually knew anything. We had only one landline for almost 200 people to use, and the few cell phones people had stopped working almost immediately due to network congestion. So, the first fragments of information we got were just fragments. We heard all kinds of wild rumors: both towers had collapsed; neither had collapsed; the Capitol was gone; the President was dead; the President was alive but in hiding; and on and on. We even heard really outlandish things about bombers, nuclear weapons, and more. The only source of information was phone calls limited to 30 seconds at first and later relaxed to two minutes. Facts and rumors given in soundbite form over the phone (with a terrible connection and multi-second delay due to distances) were repeated, misunderstood, and repeated again. In a group of people who were all far from home, not all native speakers of English, and with only one staticky phone line for information, it was impossible to fact-check faster than rumors could come in.
After a couple of hours, we started to catch up. A friendly, local couple down the road happened to have CNN via satellite and had started recording the feed when it became clear that a big plane, not a Cessna or something, had crashed. They started sending over videotapes and summary updates every hour or two.
By the time we were able to see anything on a TV screen, we were roughly three hours behind real-time. This meant that we mostly heard about developments—real and fictional—long before we saw them. During a national tragedy that so many Americans watched live, huddled together in living rooms, classrooms, conference rooms, break rooms, and sandwich shops, we watched on a delay, thousands of miles from American soil. We grieved together, of course, but we did so with almost no contact with family or friends at home, at least for those first few days.
That conference marked the start of a year-long trip. With the exception of a couple of people whose families were directly impacted, none of us were heading home to family or friends for many months to come. And with the exception of a half-dozen or so people, I had never met any of the people around me until a couple of days earlier.
My little team was in France a few days later, where we spent much of the following year. My French at that point was rudimentary, but it didn’t take much to figure out the news headlines. At first, they wept over “La Catastrophe.” Then they screamed of “Les Attaques!” Then, when it became obvious that America would react with force, they coldly updated us on “Les Accidents.” I had hundreds of conversations about these things with French, German, Spanish, Italian, Algerian, and Moroccan nationals, among others, before I had my first chance to speak in person to anyone I knew at home about them. I felt I had heard the collective thoughts and feelings of the entire world, but only a hint of the sentiments in my own country.
The next year was brutal and surreal for many reasons. We tried to keep up with news from home via the Internet and phone calls home, but we were surprisingly isolated. Many events at home that year just passed us by. I remember waiting for my flight home nearly a year later and picking up a copy of USA Today (not something I regularly read) in hopes of filling in gaps in my knowledge of non-terrorism, non-war events at home. Two of the top stories asked who would be the American Idol and who would be kicked off the island. I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Many other stories left me just as befuddled about everything from politics to sports.
For those of us who were abroad that year, 9/11 was a horrifying short-circuit, making it even harder to stay connected with “ordinary” life in the United States. While we wish as much as anyone that the 9/11 attacks had never happened, we also felt—and will always feel—isolated and cut off by that day. Our answers to the “where were you” question will always sound alien, strange, even weird. To some people I have met, those answers even sound un-American or somehow hostile.
I have mostly kept these things to myself because most people have had a hard time relating to them. In the first few years after 9/11, people tended to react in one of two ways to anything I might say: (1) silence, followed by a quick change in subject, or (2) anger, as if by being abroad during a national tragedy I had somehow chosen to cut myself off from my country.
Reactions in the last few years have mellowed, and now I mostly get the kind of look you might get if you said something completely unintelligible to someone you had just met: an uneasy stare, an unsuccessful attempt to form words, another second of silence, and a sudden shift in conversation.
Why Am I Writing This?
So, why am I speaking about this now? Why does it matter what I have to say? To be honest, a big part of it is just to let it out, to say the things I have mostly kept to myself for 17 years. But another reason is this: I hope it might be helpful to someone. Maybe someone out there is still struggling with their own feelings about that day and feels they can’t share because they don’t have a “story” that sounds “good enough” or “American enough.”
If that’s you, you’re not alone. Please reach out to me or someone else to talk about it.
I also hope this encourages at least a few people to be more empathetic. American life is full of anger, especially around politics, right now. But one of the lessons of 9/11 is that we are all human, and we all hurt, even though all of our stories are different, and sometimes we really can come together in a meaningful way that transcends our tribal squabbles.
If you’d like to talk for any reason, shoot me a note. If anything in this offended you or seems self-centered somehow, please accept my sincere apologies; that is not my intent at all.
Never forget those who died that awful day. And go hug someone you love.
The following is Madison’s summary of a truly excellent speech by John Dickenson, a delegate from Delaware to the Constitutional Convention:
Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular & admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or ever could have discovered the odd & in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given a sanction to them. This is then our guide. And has not experience verified the utility of restraining money bills to the immediate representatives of the people. Whence the effect may have proceeded he could not say; whether from the respect with which this privilege inspired the other branches of Govt. to the H. of Commons, or from the turn of thinking it gave to the people at large with regard to their rights, but the effect was visible & could not be doubted-Shall we oppose to this long experience, the short experience of 11 Years which we had ourselves, on this subject. As to disputes, they could not be avoided any way. If both Houses should originate, each would have a different bill to which it would be attached, and for which it would contend. -He observed that all the prejudices of the people would be offended by refusing this exclusive privilege to the H. of Repress. and these prejudices shd. never be disregarded by us when no essential purpose was to be served. When this plan goes forth it will be attacked by the popular leaders. Aristocracy will be the watchword; the Shibboleth among its adversaries. Eight States have inserted in their Constitutions the exclusive right of originating money bills in favor of the popular branch of the Legislature. Most of them however allowed the other branch to amend. This he thought would be proper for us to do.
In light of the current debate on Capitol Hill, the quotation of the day comes from the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller:
Some have made the argument, bordering on the frivolous, that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment. We do not interpret constitutional rights that way. Just as the First Amendment protects modern forms of communications, e.g., Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U. S. 844, 849 (1997), and the Fourth Amendment applies to modern forms of search, e.g., Kyllo v. United States, 533 U. S. 27, 35–36 (2001), the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, upon leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787
I do not want to say much about the election today, but I do want to share a few thoughts.
I will begin by referring the reader to my post-mortem of the 2008 election. When I wrote that post, much was still unknown: how Barack Obama and his Democratic colleagues in Congress would govern; whether they would unite us or divide us; whether the campaign-trail talk of bipartisanship was at all legitimate or just so much smoke; and so on. Now, four years later, we know the answers. Obviously, half of the people who voted in the last few weeks liked the answers they came up with. Others — nearly as many, in fact — did not like the conclusions that they reached, and so we are even more bitterly divided than we were four years ago.
As those who know me well — or read this blog — already know, I think last night was a catastrophe. But it was a catastrophe in the sense that a heart attack is a catastrophe for a person who has smoked heavily and drunk too often and too deeply for the first seventy years of his life: terrible, frightening, but hardly unexpected to anyone paying attention. The election was only a symptom of the nation’s condition, not an unforeseeable landslide or a paradigm shift. This is simply true, whether or not you were happy with the outcome. People went to the polls, and they voted for what they believed in; they did not suddenly reach some new and startling conclusions in the privacy of a voting booth. The results are a symptom: either that we are recovering from many of our maladies, or that we have taken a turn for the worse. Either way, our course of treatment is largely set for at least two more years and arguably far longer.
The good news today is that, as I observed after the 2008 election, we still are a nation, and we have again chosen new leaders with essentially no bloodshed or rioting and with minimal (but not zero) fraud and voter intimidation. The framework set out in the Constitution and its handful of amendments has survived, at least in this sense, for another four years.
As for the bad news, there is plenty of it. We are a deeply divided nation in countless ways, a reality that only got worse, not better, in the last four years. We are mired in debt, bitter factionalism, and debates that involve more ad hominem attacks than reasoned arguments. There are very few topics that we can talk about without someone hurling (meaningless) epithets such as “one-percenter,” “____-phobic,” “anti-woman,” “anti-child,” and so on. Measured without accounting gimmicks, our deficits and our debt are soaring and are already well beyond levels that can be bridged even with punitive levels of taxation. Indeed, our country’s credit, once seen as the safest in the world, has been downgraded and is on multiple watch lists for further downgrades. Our military is weakening and faced with further, eminent, and debilitating cuts unless action is taken quickly. Our foes are emboldened, while some of our most faithful allies no longer even question whether we can be depended upon; we have proven all too often that, at least for now, we cannot. I pray that our leaders — all of them — can work together to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the people governed by it.
Whether we can overcome the challenges ahead, only time will tell. A look at the history of nations with such deep debts and deep divisions does not bode well. If we are to overcome the tests ahead, it will be a remarkable feat, and it will take all of our effort. As a start, please pray for this nation and her people. They do sorely need our prayers.