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AAC&U Presidential Statement on the Death of Bin Laden and the Lessons of 9/11

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

With the death of Osama Bin Laden, we mark an important milestone in the world’s ongoing battle against the forces of terror and violence. But this milestone moment—resonant with the memories of 9/11 and all that followed—also creates an opportunity to reclaim the sense of larger unity and civic purpose that we experienced so powerfully in the wake of the tragic and horrific assaults on New York City and Washington, D.C.

Since the founding of our nation, American patriotism has always meant, not just love of country, but engagement with the core values of democracy—with this nation’s historic and continuing exploration of the principles and practices that help us sustain our commitments to freedom and human dignity. The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, Martin Luther King, Jr. told us, but, in truth, it bends toward justice only when conscientious citizens come together—across myriad differences—to shape the social compact for our communities. And, throughout our history, the meaning and application of our founding principles have always been contested. It is for this reason that education plays such an essential role in our society—providing a continuously evolving laboratory to explore our principles, engage our differences, and discover ways to work together for the greater good.

The national pride we feel this month invites us to re-engage with the larger lessons of 9/11 and of American history over time--lessons of service, courage, and unity; lessons about the qualities that bind us together as a nation, and those that have torn us apart; lessons that show us what freedom makes possible for those who cherish it.

President Obama noted in announcing Bin Laden’s death that we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the thousands of individuals—members of the military, but also members of the intelligence, diplomatic, and counterterrorism communities—who have worked so hard and, in too many cases, sacrificed so much in our efforts to bring the world’s best known terrorist to justice. We join President Obama in thanking the U.S. forces who carried out the mission and who, as Obama put it, "exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of burden since that September day."

But even as we honor these American heroes, we should also ask where we are, as a society, in our ongoing engagement with the principles and practices that nourish and sustain our democracy. Why is the “burden” of public service in our society so unequally apportioned? Why is the experience of civic engagement today so divisive and, too often, dispiriting?

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy kindled the idealism of a generation when he summoned all of us to ask, not what our country could do for us, but what we can do for our country.  In this new era of global interdependence, higher education institutions play an even more crucial role—both by providing centers for civic inquiry and problem-solving, and by educating citizens who are both prepared and inspired to provide knowledgeable and conscientious leadership for the future of democracy at home and abroad.

And so, at this historic moment, let us recommit as educators to explore with our students the past, present, and future of freedom, in our society and around the world. Working together, we can—and must—help all our students acquire the knowledge, skills, and determination to tackle the urgent problems of our time. Democracy thrives when its citizens come together—across all our differences—to learn from one another, to take pride in shared effort, and to understand at the deepest level the meaning and still emerging potential of our democratic principles.

Carol Geary Schneider