Chief Justice Speech - September 11, 2002

September 11 Anniversary Memorial
Chief Justice Ronald M. George
San Francisco
September 11, 2002

Good afternoon. One year ago today, Americans—along with the entire world—were transfixed before television screens, watching as scenes of airplane collisions, conflagrations, structural collapses, and devastation followed one upon another. We mourned with those who had lost family, friends, and loved ones. We deeply felt the need for speedy justice to be administered to the persons responsible for these terrible deeds. And by the end of that day, we felt drained and apprehensive about what lay ahead for ourselves, our families, and our friends—and for our state, nation, and world.

During the days that followed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the thwarted efforts of the hijackers of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, we were reminded of our nation's strengths as well as our vulnerabilities. In the aftermath of this tragedy, our greatest challenge has been not to surrender to despair, to unfocused hatred, or to blind fear—but instead to rely on our resilience and on the rule of law. Fortunately, thus far we have been successful in meeting that challenge.

Today offers us an opportunity to reflect together on the events of September 11, 2001, and the past year—and on what lies ahead and where we should set our goals. By now, we have learned the names and seen the faces of the victims, both living and dead. We have heard and been heartened by innumerable stories of the bravery and strength of ordinary individuals. And we have begun to find our way in a world that, in many ways, seems radically transformed from the one in which we lived on September 10 of last year and yet is essentially unchanged.

We are in a period of adjustment that is likely to continue for many years. Not every terrorist has been found, nor every hazard uncovered or resolved. Moreover, we are faced not only with threats to our physical and psychological well-being, but also with challenges to the very foundations of our democratic system of government.

We deservedly should be proud that the overwhelming reaction to the crisis that engulfed our nation was neither panic nor chaos. Instead, our response has demonstrated the fundamental solidity of our society and its core principles, particularly its commitment to undertake a quest for justice conducted in accordance with the rule of law.

Adhering to the rule of law in this difficult time demands a great deal and may run counter to some of our immediate and understandable instincts. But tolerance, openness, freedom, and diversity are the touchstones of our nation's greatness. Dissent and disagreement have a long and distinguished history in our governmental discourse. The values that we espouse as Americans are more than simple catch phrases, and they must remain vibrant and alive in our national consciousness in order to endure.

The phrase "the rule of law" implies conduct governed not by caprice or visceral reaction, but instead by carefully considered rules—thoughtfully adopted, with an eye toward more permanent values.

This is not merely a matter of theoretical concern. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a recent national poll revealed that almost half of the American population now believes that the constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment goes too far. Earlier polls have revealed similar doubts, but the number of those who may be counted as skeptics has increased since September 11.

Another recent poll conducted by National Public Radio and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard suggested the opposite—after the initial shock, Americans are beginning to place greater emphasis on ensuring the strength of our civil liberties. Clearly, the role of civil liberties in our society is a vital subject of concern and attention, and it is incumbent upon each of us to thoughtfully consider the balance between our freedoms and our need to protect ourselves.

The challenging times we face require that we all be actively engaged in preserving the principles and the process that have permitted our nation to achieve its greatness. We must be vigilant to ensure that we do not become complacent about the strength and primacy of these values in our society—and their relevance in our relationship with the rest of the world.

In times of crisis and stress, the pressure to make exceptions or major revisions to core principles in order to respond to urgent needs can become almost overwhelming. Resisting that temptation is often difficult, but yet essential. In the final analysis, selectively applying individual laws—even in the pursuit of important and immediate objectives—neither honors nor sustains the rule of law. We cannot preserve our basic freedoms by limiting them, even in times of great challenge.

The vigor of our nation and the strength of its commitment to freedom are reflected in the current continuing dialogue about the application of the rule of law to the changed circumstances of the past year. Although all the issues have not yet been settled, and there may be many who disagree about some of the conclusions that are ultimately drawn, each of us has a vital role to play.

As Americans, we owe close and careful attention to what we ask of government and how our government responds. And many of us gathered here today work in positions in which supporting the rule of law is more than an abstraction: instead it is part of our job description and daily routine. As someone who has been in public service my entire career, I can state that the events of the past year have only reinforced my belief

that serving the public is both an extraordinary opportunity and a unique honor.

It is true that in one way or another we all have been wounded by the events of last September 11. But we also have been reminded of how much we have to be proud of and how much we have to be thankful for—both as individuals and as a society.

As the president of Dartmouth College, James Wright, so eloquently stated at a convocation shortly after that tragic day: "September 2001 needs to be marked by more than a memory of violence and suffering. We need to grieve and remember those who have been lost, commend those who were our heroes, and comfort those who mourn and suffer. How better to do this than by dedicating ourselves to confronting hatred and rejecting stereotypes, by seeking justice and . . . confronting injustice. This task is one that we must individually assume as a living memorial to the victims of these tragic events."

None of us can be complacent. None of us should assume that our freedoms are guaranteed. All of us, however, can affect how our future course is charted.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you today. Despite the challenges the future will bring, I am confident that together we shall ensure that the rule of law and the principles of our nation remain strong and certain. In protecting this legacy, we shall truly honor those whom we lost one year ago today, as well as those whose dedicated service will continue to protect our freedoms as we move ahead.

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