Like many folks, I truly dislike dwelling much on the 9-11 attacks. The memories are too painful. What we all saw that day is deeply seared into our collective memory and we will never forget. But what I feared most as I watched those towers fall was not another attack. It was America's reaction. I remember shaking my head and worrying aloud to my wife that America might be so overwhelmed by fear that it would fall prey to people who peddle in fear for personal gain and power. Sadly, this is largely what came to pass. As a result, among the many victims of the 9-11 attacks was science and reason in America.
There are certain gems of wisdom that can be found in unexpected places. One which came to my mind that terrible day was from Frank Herbert's Dune: "Fear is the mind killer." And on 9-11 America's collective fear killed our collective mind. People replaced reason with dogma. Ideologues who had been making steady political gains for decades made a quantum leap forward and hijacked our nation. Science and reason, which by their natures are the antithesis of dogma, were under ferocious attack in America.
There's plenty written about this war on science. You can get all the gory details from excellent recent books like Science Under Siege and The Republican War on Science. My point today is that the ideological fallout of 9-11 is still raining down on us in the form of wild fear mongering, utterly baseless and absurd attacks on health care reform in America. We are also seeing it manifested in a vicious wave of bigotry and racism (which sprouts from hatred which, in turn, is born of fear).
The biggest challenge 9-11 gave America was not the War on Terrorism but the War on Terror — the struggle to overcome fear itself. Will we be a nation governed by our darkest fears or our highest ideals? I think I know which America our Founding Fathers meant it to be. And I certainly know — as a person whose life is dedicated to science, reason, liberty and equality — which America I want it to be. It remains to be seen, however, if enough Americans have learned the 9-11 lesson. Barack Obama's election was a good sign. Health care reform is our next massively significant test. I am hopeful we'll pass, then go on to ace the next test: Reform of our deadly, climate altering fossil fuel economy. It's what science and reason demand of us. It's what we must do if we are to conquer fear and make this a better world.