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As with any family that has suffered a traumatic loss, we began our post-Sept. 11 healing by struggling to make some sense of it all. Whether a trauma is unfortunate happenstance or deliberate action, we ask: Why us? How did we end up in this tragic, painful place? Who are we? And, perhaps, who do they think we are? After suffering an assault, many people engage in emotional self-reproach, a reproving introspection of “If I had only … , I would have seen it coming.” But especially disconcerting about this tragedy is that, try as hard as we might, we find nothing that could in any way justify the inhuman violence visited upon us. Indeed, we see nothing that would have given us any warning of the antipathy that fueled these attacks. As Americans, we feel privileged to live in a nation where individual liberty is fundamental and cherished. Each person’s right to shape her own destiny — selfish or selfless — is considered inviolate. Moreover, having enjoyed bountiful freedom, we have come to believe that individual autonomy is a basic human right, to which every person — not just Americans — is entitled. We want to share the wealth of our ideals. How could anyone find that objectionable, much less despicable or pernicious? And how could it make us the target of barbarous aggression? It was inconceivable to us that the American Dream could be perceived by some as utterly antithetical to their existence, so much so that they would dance in the streets at the image of Americans annihilated. Of course, during the Cold War, we believed that a group of nations was poised to eradicate us. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, our notion of the American Way has been of an indisputably benevolent manifestation of natural law. This concept of the American Dream no more rendered us rabid imperialists than it denounced non-Westerners as uncivilized heathens. If we suffered from any myopia, it was only that of not fully realizing that, no matter how unselfish our desire to share the fruits of our most treasured values, some will always vehemently reject our goal of democracy as the inexorable destination of a liberated humanity. Now we know a different truth. One benefit of this newfound realization is that it will undoubtedly enhance our appreciation for our uniquely multiracial, multi-ethnic family. It is with our fellow Americans that we have endured and shared our defining experiences. Consequently, our common experience of reaching out to each other across divisions must become our most unifying and sustaining feature. And in this new introspection, there may also lie answers to other imminent questions as to who we are and who we intend to be. We have always regarded the industrial know-how that undergirds our society as inherently American. But with the advances in information technology, we have become uneasy with our progeny. Like some Fantasian sorcerer’s apprentice, we are discombobulated by the realization that our discovery of cyberspace does not deed us exclusive domain over its borders. Indeed, it may even be that our effort to apply borders of any kind is antediluvian and archaic. Perhaps our interests might be best served by simply participating in the resulting world conversation, instead of trying to direct it. We can choose to accept that, however benign our notions of democracy, they are only that — our notions. And although we may have developed technological means that facilitate today’s global exchange of ideas, technological superiority no longer grants us any special stature in the discourse. In this world, expressing our essential American nature requires more than imposing technological advance and economic leverage; we need to rely on the strength of our ideals. The imperative to participate in a multilingual, multinational colloquy also provides an opportunity to re-examine and refine our domestic priorities. For example, we must redress the “digital divide” that separates whole communities in our society from the benefits of our wondrous technology. Mastering international communication can only come after we’ve achieved a command of our intrafamily dialogue. In the wake of this great adversity, we have revisited our ideological aspirations and, in a manner inherently American, found a way to harvest progress from disaster. We more readily recognize in each other a common experience and recall the fundamental importance of the ideals born of that history. We have found not so much a need to define further what it means to be an American, as a need to move even closer to that ideal. Warner Lawson is a professor, and Lateef Mtima is an associate professor, at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.

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