The world watched with awe and fascination more than a century ago as the United States struggled to rebuild after the wrenching trauma of the Civil War, a conflict that rocked U.S. institutions, culture and politics at every level. Disraeli, observing the drama from overseas, wrote: "We will see, when the waters have subsided, a different America."
Since the tragedy of September 11th , much of the world again has waited with curiosity – and even some cynicism – to see what kind of America will emerge when these storm waters, too, subside.
The long-term impact of Sept. 11th on our country, its people and our nation’s role in the global community may not be clear for many years to come. But what is already clear is that the terror of September 11th disrupted a cultural trend that had evolved in the United States over several decades, in which people pulled away from public engagement and community involvement and became more cloistered within their own private worlds. By the sheer force of this terrible event, we were driven out of our cocoons once again and challenged to reconsider our roles as citizens, neighbors and inhabitants of a planet shared by people whose cultures, philosophies and experiences we neither share nor understand.
Whether this shift has long-term implications for our society, and how it does or does not transform our nation in the years ahead, remains to be seen. Our challenge today is to view this point in time as an opportunity to foster greater understanding of where our nation has been and where it is headed – and of how our hopes and expectations for our nation are reflected in our own behaviors, our values and the choices we make as a people.
The University of Denver and Colorado State University have joined forces to ignite such a discussion here in our state over the coming year. Beginning in September, with the support of private contributors, we will be sponsoring a series of programs, events and community discussions on the theme, "Bridges to the Future: American History and Values in Light of September 11th." Civic, social and business leaders from across the state will serve as Colorado Ambassadors for the project, encouraging communities and institutions around Colorado to develop programming to engage their constituents in this critical statewide conversation.
In undertaking an effort of this type, one always risks accusations of jingoism or, alternatively, anti-Americanism. But "Bridges to the Future" is the most straightforward and American of efforts – an open, thoughtful and respectful attempt to honestly examine the richness of our history, heritage, experiences and values as we plan for our nation’s future.
Our nation was founded upon a series of values and principles that are articulated in our great public documents and have traditionally been viewed as hallmarks of our national character. In his 1801 inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson called upon Americans to understand what he called the "essential principles of our Government" – principles he found in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights, although he knew firsthand the antagonisms and tensions among their defining assumptions and values. His list of "essential principles" included equal justice for all people; "peace, commerce and honest friendship"; the supremacy of civil over military authority; encouragement of agriculture and commerce; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; and trial by juries impartially selected.
While it certainly can be argued that the government and people of the United States have not always behaved in precise accordance with these principles, they remain generally understood and accepted as the standard toward which we must strive. "Bridges to the Future" challenges us to debate how we, as citizens, have upheld this vision of our founders and what such ideals mean in the context of today’s world. It challenges us, as individuals and members of a greater society, to demonstrate and strengthen our commitment to civic and social responsibility in support of our nation, our world and particularly one another.
In a culture that admires action and prizes immediacy, we rarely take time to reflect on questions of such enormous complexity. Today, we have that opportunity – and in rising to this challenge, we will help design a renewed America that will rise above this tidal wave of tragedy.