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September 24, 2001

President Carter: 'Our nation will survive'

By Eric Rangus


The 20th annual Carter Town Hall Meeting, held Sept. 13 in the P.E. Center, was without a doubt the most somber in the event’s history.

Coming just two days after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, none of the more than 1,000 in attendance was in the jovial mood that normally accompanies the former president’s annual forum.

“I know this is a special occasion,” Carter said. “Our nation has been stricken by an unprecedented attack that will have the same aftermath in suffering and indelible memory as the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Our nation will survive, as it always has,” he continued. “We’re the strongest, most powerful, most freedom-loving nation of them all.”

As is Carter’s standard procedure, he opened his remarks by discussing the recent work of the Atlanta-based center that bears his name. In the previous weeks, Carter said, he had been in Mongolia, learning about that Asian country’s fledgling democracy; in China, promoting democratic reforms; and in East Timor, observing the tiny island nation’s first free parliamentary elections. Next month, Carter said he and his wife Rosalynn will be in Bangladesh, observing the election there.

“This is the Carter Center’s work, and all of that belongs to you,” he said. “We have an inseparable marriage between the Carter Center and Emory.”

The focus of the evening, though, was the question-and-answer period, where Carter always has answered fully any question posed to him. This night was no different.

Asked if the country was at war—a word used by President George W. Bush—Carter said, “No. But we are in a global confrontation with terrorists who threaten [all] people in the world, not just Americans.”

As was certainly to be expected, at least half of Carter’s discussion was devoted to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as their aftermath. And Carter was candid in his remarks.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that punitive action must be taken,” Carter said. He took his comments a step beyond simple military movements and discussed the cultural implications of terrorism as well.

“I’m afraid that one of the worst possible consequences of a terrible and unjustifiable attack on us is that Americans might tend to lash out at those who worship Allah and who happen to be Arabs,” Carter said, “even though there are few of those who are guilty. I hope that this doesn’t happen.”

The evening wasn’t limited to talk of reprisal, however. For instance, Carter was asked whether he though Microsoft should have been broken up (he said no, but admitted being a personal friend of Bill Gates), why he allowed Cuban refugees to land in Florida during his presidency (Carter said he wanted to treat them humanely), and about the U.S. role in Tibet (Carter said the head of China’s foreign relations committee had asked the Carter Center to send a delegation to China to explore the Tibetan issue—an invitation Carter said he is working through).

Carter’s response to a question about stem cell research brought sustained applause. “I personally wish that President Bush would have authorized the unrestricted use of stem cell research,” he said. “I think he made a mistake.”

Carter also earned applause for his answer to a question from freshman Amit Tiwary’s question about what has motivated him to succeed.

“Things that measure success are the things you cannot see,” Carter said, his voice softening with every word. “Justice, peace, humility, service, a willingness to forgive, compassion, sacrificial love: Those are the most important attributes of life.

At this point, Carter’s voice was barely above a whisper. “And I would say the most perfect example of real success might be in the face of a child with Down’s Syndrome, a child who with absolute faith will invariably look at you, a stranger, and with a beatific smile will reach out his or her arms to embrace you. So I would say, in the eyes of God, that would be success.”

It was that sort of quiet emotion that hung over the gym throughout the evening.

Even the normally sardonic William M. Dooley, who took to the stage at the start of the program, understood the gravity of the evening.

“Presidents may come and presidents may go. Professors may come and professors may go. Students may come and students may go. But Dooley—and freedom—lives on forever,” he said.. “But we need to promote these things in the Middle East and not use them as an empty slogan.”


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