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Mayor’s Corner: Ten years later, has 9/11 made us better or worse as a nation?

By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.

Mayor of Lewiston

Ten years ago, our nation suffered one of the most significant tragedies in our history. On this important anniversary of that sad day, we remember the nearly 3,000 people who left their homes that morning ready to go about their work.

In an instant they were torn from their loved ones forever. Their families still carry losses that will never in this life be filled; and our country was forever changed.

I remember that morning well. I was in Auburn, and in a place of business there I saw on television the buildings of the World Trade Center ablaze with heavy smoke pouring from several floors. I immediately called my wife, Pat, and told her about it. I then called my daughter Karla, as she worked in Boston for United Airlines.

I told her that I had heard that American Airlines Flight 11 had originated from Boston around 8 a.m. and had hit the first tower. She said, “Yes dad, and we have two planes that left here around the same time that are unaccounted for,” noting that “one of them was United Flight 175.”

I said, “United 175, that’s our flight to Los Angeles on Friday morning.” Karla and her husband, my wife and I were scheduled to fly Los Angeles on United Flight 175 that Friday morning, Sept. 14, and then from L.A. on to Honolulu, Hawaii.

Karla then told me that she had two co-workers on 175 that morning. They were heading to Las Vegas via Los Angeles, as they had received a special promotion at the Venetian Hotel/Casino. She said they had asked her to go with them, as she would sometimes fly somewhere for the day or a couple of days with co-workers. She told them she couldn’t go with them because she was scheduled to go to Hawaii with her husband and her parents that Friday. I was drawn to tears as I navigated the Maine Turnpike back to the federal courthouse in Portland, where my office was located.

Such a tragic event will somehow haunt all of us Americans for as long as we live.

Yet, despite the horrors of that day, we remain moved by the way people throughout the United States put aside their differences in the aftermath of the attacks and came together in empathy, love and support. We remember the many firefighters, police officers and ordinary citizens who searched for survivors and so generously gave of themselves to help the families of the deceased.

From that very first day, September 11 always highlighted the best and worst of what humans are capable.

That has continued through the ensuing decade. On the one hand, nations the whole world over offered their support to us. From every corner of America, people donated to 9/11 charities. There was a real sense of our common humanity: that what happens to one of us affects all of us. That’s the good results 9/11 revealed and still reveals every year we remember it.

But unfortunately, we must remember also the darker side of what came next. These wounds, sadly, were self-inflicted. They include: two wars, unconstitutional federal surveillance powers and an unprecedented rise of detentions (for citizens and non-citizens alike).

To take one important example, in the months before September 11, the End the Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) had bipartisan support and passage of the bill was virtually guaranteed. For African Americans, who had long experienced the humiliation of unwarranted stops and searches based on the color of their skin, passage of ERPA would break new ground.

But after September 11, congressional interest in ERPA dimmed as the focus turned to national security and passage of the PATRIOT Act. The federal government began targeting people of Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Muslim background for extra scrutiny.

As a former U.S. Marshal and Lewiston Chief of Police, some might expect me to be on the side of granting federal law enforcement more authority, even if constitutionally questionable. But I know firsthand that good law enforcement depends on taking no short cuts. Using someone’s race, religion or country of origin to guess about their guilt is a short cut. It prevents law enforcement from looking at the real causes for suspicion.

That kind of stereotyping results in misallocating resources and destroying valuable trust with communities. It means wasting time chasing innocent people with the wrong skin color, while not spending enough time going after real criminals that don’t fit the stereotype. And even worse, communities that feel targeted don’t want to cooperate with investigations and are even too afraid to report crimes—yes, even when they are the victims.

In short, racial/bias profiling is bad for everyone: law enforcement, people of color and the general public. That Congress could not pass such common-sense policy like ERPA is a sad result of 9/11. It represents the opposite of what America stands for: equality under the law. But the federal government did more than refuse to pass common sense laws. It also came up with new policies that took us backwards.

Through the Department of Homeland Security, both the Bush and Obama Administrations merged immigration policy with national security. Even in the middle of the Great Recession, they devoted additional resources to detentions and deportations of immigrants, worksite raids, home raids and collaborations with local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.

Through the 287 (g) programs, the Criminal Alien Program and the Secure Communities program, the federal government enlisted local and state law enforcement agencies to enforce civil immigration law. These programs have incentivized racial profiling and broken the trust between police and local law enforcement. Thankfully, Lewiston and Auburn Police Departments are not part of the 287(g) program, nor should we ever be.

As I’ve written in previous columns, we need Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the DREAM Act, not these backwards policies that do no good for anyone. Passage of these policies would be true to the spirit of 9/11 that brought out the best in so many people, even amidst the worst from others.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform would provide a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in America and ensure family reunification for all immigrants separated from loved ones just because of our system’s bureaucratic tangles.

Any state like Maine that depends so much on the agricultural workers should understand how important immigrant and often undocumented labor is for our financial well-being. It’s difficult to imagine Lisbon Street without the wonderful stores our new Somali neighbors have opened. It’s hard to imagine landlords being able to keep their buildings without all the new tenants.

If Comprehensive Immigration Reform can’t be passed immediately, surely the DREAM Act could. It would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young people that came to the United States as children, if they graduated from college or served in the armed services. They know of no other home than this country; it wasn’t even their decision to come. Especially in a state like Maine that needs to retain and attract more young people, it only makes sense to do everything we can to encourage young graduates and veterans to stay put.

These are the policies that represent the best of us, our beliefs in freedom and equality for all. They stand opposed to the fear-based laws of those that would rather have racial profiling than real law enforcement. That mixture of our best and our worst, of faith and fear, is the legacy of that terrible day 10 years ago. It is up to us every year to remember, to strive next year always to do better; we can and we should!

I call on all of us to strive to improve our nation by expanding our civil and human rights in lieu of having them reduced as a response to 9/11. When we compromise our rights we allow terrorist to achieve their goals of placing us in fear and for them to defeat us.

Let us seek God’s intervention in relieving the pain that the families and friends of the victims of 9/11 have and continue to endure. We should never forget and in our remembrance may it bring out the best in us as a nation. When we look back at our history, we find that we have lived to regret what has brought out the worst in us as a nation in response to wars or other horrific events.

May God bless us all on the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2011.


See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at


One Response to “Mayor’s Corner: Ten years later, has 9/11 made us better or worse as a nation?”

  • Mayor Gilbert as a former law enforcement officer I would hope you could tell the difference between legal and illegal…In your article you speak of the new shops on Lisbon street as a reason for comprehensive immigration reform, however those shopowners are here legally.

    You have just pulled over a motorist and find out he is driving without a license do you:

    A) Lament the fact that he doesn’t have a license and creat a special path you a driver license for him?
    B) ticket him and tow the car?

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