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Erik Bergrud

I began writing this column on September 12, 2011, seated on an airplane bound for New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The day before, the nation and the world paused to reflect upon the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to remember the victims and to celebrate the heroes who risked their lives, or in many cases sacrificed their lives, to protect the innocent.

Like most of you, I recall vividly where I was on that surreal day 10 years ago. I was working for ASPA in my Kansas City home office (not in my pajamas!) when a co-worker contacted me about an airline crash in New York City. Our executive director happened to be on vacation that day, and we tried to get the remaining ASPA employees out of harm’s way as raw breaking reports suggested impending calamity in the heart of Washington, DC. As the sole remaining staff member on duty, I then turned my attention to our members in affected locales, sending “Are you all right?” email message after email message, hoping that I would receive responses.

ASPA’s growing electronic presence enabled the Society to respond quickly to that unspeakable tragedy. President Dan Ahern and Executive Director Mary Hamilton collaborated on an official statement:

“We in the American Society for Public Administration wish to express our heartfelt sympathy to the families and friends of the victims of the airplane highjackings and terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. We share the nation’s horror at these events.

We are proud of the many public servants and other individuals who have been working under dangerous conditions, tirelessly and heroically, to see us through this catastrophe.

We pray for the safety of our friends, members and public service colleagues employed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, for the victims of the attack, their families and friends.

We believe in this country and the strength and resilience of its people and are confident that together we will surmount this tragic situation and be stronger for it.”

In the ensuing days and weeks, several members crafted online columns for the ASPA web site. The late Harlan Cleveland, who served Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, provided analysis which, if heeded, would have changed our country’s trajectory during the past decade. He wrote:

“The American people, once again instantly unified, have now made a judgment that we are at war. It’s not in us to walk around frightened about our future, so we’re going to do something. But do what? And who’s the we that will be doing it?

The first instinct of some leaders may be to lash out at the most obvious symbols of terrorism, and do it in a hurry-at whatever expense to our own democracy-and on our own, as a self-isolating action. My guess is that the instinctive wisdom of the people will prevail over the itch of the instant-response hotheads, and that the case for acting internationally in an interdependent world will trump the urge to express our unilateral impatience.

Like most things worth doing, this won’t be done in a hurry. It won’t be done without casualties, and it won’t be done at bargain prices. For a start, it will doubtless cost a lot more than we were planning to spend on “defense.” This may require changing some suddenly premature Republican ideas about tax cutting, and some postponable Democratic ambitions about social spending.

The American people are heir to one tradition that is a feature of our history but is, curiously, not yet expressed in the lyrics of our patriotic songs. Ours is a nation that rises to the occasion. We have done it before, and we will do it again.”

Colin Talbot, then a professor of public policy at the University of Nottingham, UK, provided an international perspective. In “Tough on Terrorism, Tough on the Causes of Terrorism,” he contrasted historical terrorist organizations with specific grievances with the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks, interested in waging an ideological war and overthrowing a whole system.?

And an emotional piece by Bob and Janet Denhardt became one of the most widely read articles ever published by ASPA. I reread “The Power of Public Service” on the eve of the 10th anniversary. I remain captivated by their closing paragraphs.

“In a peculiar way, this ghastly act of terrorism reminds us of why we are in the public service. We care about our country, our community and our neighbors. Each of us, whether we wear a uniform, a suit, a jacket, coveralls or a hard hat, plays a role in improving the lives of others. Service to the public–helping people in trouble, making the world safer and cleaner, helping children learn and prosper, literally going where others would not go–is our job and our calling.

The image of police officers and firefighters going up those stairs is compelling. But even more compelling is the larger and more pervasive power of public service. Those in law enforcement, in transportation, in health care and in dozens of other fields at the federal, state and local levels will make untold sacrifices over the coming months and years in order to respond to these events and to make this world a better place for our citizens.

This ability to be selfless, to be open to the needs and values and wants of others, is a part of each public servant. And it’s a part of who we are that shouldn’t require effort, or even tragedy for us to recognize or acknowledge. We need not wait for such events to awaken our sense of humanity and respect. As these events have once again shown, service to the public is indeed a proud and noble profession.”

Fortunately, ASPA archived the works of these individuals and other columnists which appeared online a decade ago. You can access them here.

I remember September 11, 2001. I remember these poignant reflections offered by my ASPA colleagues in the ensuing days and weeks. Yet, I’m struggling to remember how assured I was in the aftermath of the attacks that Americans would continue to value public servants. And I wonder what climate public servants will experience on September 11, 2021.

ASPA member Erik Bergrud is the Society’s president. Email: [email protected]

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