Reprise: David Foster Wallace on Legacy of 9/11

Recently I mentioned George Friedman's Stratfor essay arguing that, as we reflect on the al Qaeda attacks nine years ago this weekend, Americans should muster the intellectual and political courage to remain alert about terrorist threats without letting anti-terrorism become a distorting center of our international strategy and domestic values.

Several readers have written to mention an essay I've quoted before but which is worth re-reading in these circumstances. It is by the late David Foster Wallace, and it appeared in the "American Idea" section of our 150th anniversary issue, three years ago.

It is very short -- Wallace wryly mentioned the "strict Gramm-Rudmanesque space limit" he was forced to work within -- and worth reading. Here is its gist:

Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, "sacrifices on the altar of freedom"? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life--sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

He goes on to follow the thought experiment to its conclusions. As mentioned before, I don't expect politicians to be able to talk this way. I am glad Wallace could and did.