Ideas Still Have Consequences and Philanthropy: 9/11 Twenty Years Later

Ideas Still Have Consequences and Philanthropy: 9/11 Twenty Years Later

Sep 11, 2021 Debi Ghate

I know that 20 years ago when the twin towers were brought down by Islamist terrorists associated with al-Qaida and funded by foreign regimes, many of our lives were changed forever.

At the time, I had just moved to the United States from Canada and was living in Los Angeles. I had just taken a big leap and left a big-city private sector litigation job to join a nonprofit as human resources manager and legal counsel for a small nonprofit. When the first plane hit, I was still asleep on the West Coast. My brother-in-law called, voice shaking, “Turn on the TV.”

As the rest of the country did, I froze. Suddenly, usually deafening LAX was silent. No one knew where the president was. We had no idea if there was another plane about to hit a building. It was surreal. It was scary as hell.

My first instinct was to stay home and wait. As I called my boss at the time, Yaron Brook, and asked what to do about the office, it was clear he was in his car already driving there. He said it was up to me, but he was going in. My husband, Onkar, worked there too. He was already dressed and ready to go as was one of our staff writers, Elan Journo. I thought to myself, “Are they insane? We don’t know what is going to happen!” But I sure wasn’t going to stay home alone. So off I went to the office. 

And that’s when my life changed. The reason Yaron, Onkar and Elan were able to spring into action when most of us froze is because they had truly internalized the common slogan that “ideas have consequences.” We worked at a nonprofit that educates Americans about U.S. foreign policy. They understood, at a deep philosophical level, what had just happened, why, by whom and for what purpose. They recognized the Islamic totalitarianism behind the attacks, and that this attack on U.S. soil resulted from a clash of radically different worldviews—with one side choosing death and violence and the other choosing life and liberty. They understood that this was not a new clash, that history has many examples of what this clash looks like, and that there had been an identifiable pattern of events predating the attack that could have served as a warning to our government. It was then that I decided I wanted to have their level of understanding and certainty about the world—to have a deeper understanding about why and how ideas have consequences.

In the coming days, I watched America hold a day of prayer, while Canada held a day of remembrance. I felt the fear that minorities felt when people accused them of being terrorists and were suddenly isolated or in the worst cases, attacked and murdered. I watched with overwhelming emotion as Americans ran toward the twin towers to their deaths trying to save one another. I was so angry I got physically sick when I understood the vicious ideology behind the attacks—evil truly did exist in the world. I felt that patriotism of my new country and the fear of not yet understanding fully where I had landed. And I learned ideas have consequences.

No matter how one feels about Afghanistan today, it is clear that ideas still have consequences. Twenty years later, some of us who were old enough to experience 9/11, have been expressing a range of emotions about how this chapter has ended. Those of us who believe America is the best place for those who love freedom to live, who want to see its full potential realized and who want to defend the founding ideals of this country are reflecting soberly on this anniversary. We sense that the ongoing clash of different world views remains an undercurrent, and we treasure life and liberty. 

For those of us in philanthropy, private funding can help ensure the lessons of 9/11 are not forgotten and remind us that ideas can have devastating consequences. Here are some thoughts, and this is certainly not an exclusive list: 

  • Ensure that 9/11 is taught as part of U.S. history and equip teachers to discuss such sensitive and controversial topics in classrooms. There are programs for teachers as early as grade school.
  • Support the preservation of accurately sharing the story of 9/11 such as through the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
  • Accurately share why the terrorists took action, neither overgeneralizing nor sugarcoating those reasons.
  • Support the work of those who are applying the lessons of 9/11 to today’s foreign policy issues.
  • Help Americans remember and discover what unites us as a nation – not just as a response to evil but the positive values we share.

There is so much pain that still exists from that day 20 years ago. But for some of us, there was also new clarity. I often think of the image of Yaron, Onkar and Elan springing into action because they understood what ideas were having those consequences. There are many projects that can help others understand this that need ongoing philanthropic support.