Madeleine Albright
The stories of September 11 still pain us deeply—the children who lost their mothers on the hijacked flights, the firefighters who sacrificed their lives trying to save others, the missing husbands whose remains haven't been recovered. And now, as we continue to grapple with our grief, fear, and anger, we also worry about how many more lives a sustained war on terrorism might claim.
Few have witnessed as much tragedy and destruction around the globe as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. For the four years that she served as the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government, Albright not only represented America in desperate, war-torn countries but also flew to the sites of terrorist attacks on our embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. She brought home the bodies of Americans killed in Kenya, riding on a cargo plane with the coffins. Days after the horror that befell New York City and Albright's current hometown of Washington, D.C., I asked her to help us make sense of the attack. Could it have been avoided? Why do the terrorists hate us so much? And in the wake of such an unfathomable calamity, can our nation ever truly heal?

Start reading Oprah's interview with Madeleine Albright

Note: This interview appeared in the December 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Oprah: We've all heard that on September 11 America was forever changed. What does that mean to you?

Madeleine: Americans have always felt pretty invulnerable here at home—until we were violated on our own territory in a way we have never been. In September more Americans died than on any other day in our history—and that has changed the way we look at things. In some ways we need to change. This attack was so awful that if we don't change, the lives lost will be without vindication. I obviously can't identify with what happened to those who lost their lives—but in a way I was in those buildings, you were in those buildings, every American was.

Oprah: That's so true. When we last talked, you said you had seen unimaginable atrocities around the world. Have you ever seen anything like this?

Madeleine: Nobody has ever seen this kind of terrorism. I witnessed similar devastation when I visited our embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania [after the August 1998 bombings]. But there wasn't the same loss of life. Through television we saw this tragedy in real time. While we were watching the first tower burn, all of a sudden the second plane goes through the other side—we're watching it, and then we see the buildings come down. It was a visual horror that is unparalleled.

Oprah: I had to say out loud what I had seen, just so my brain could take it in.

Madeleine: What's weird is that we've all probably seen movies like this and walked away thinking, "This couldn't possibly happen." So we're left trying to get our minds around the fact that it's not a horror show, it's real life. I knew people in those buildings, so I felt a combination of every possible horrible feeling.

Oprah: How can we process the fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty of not knowing what's next?

Madeleine: I'm not sure—I'm still processing the magnitude of what happened myself. But we have to be determined that we won't let this stop us. The balance I have struggled with is between having a normal day and knowing that there are people wandering the streets of New York holding photographs and signs that read HAVE YOU SEEN MY HUSBAND?

Oprah: Yes. With every show I taped right after the tragedy, I thought, "How can I do this while they're still rescuing people?"

Madeleine: I even feel awful having conversations about other matters. And yet I know that if we don't continue getting back to normal, the terrorists will have won. It's important that we invest in America—literally. The terrorists wanted to destroy our economy, and we can't let our system fall apart. We also have to invest in one another. As I listen to the stories of those grieving, I know we're all grieving with them. We have to go through that entire grief process.

Oprah: Otherwise, our grief may turn to rage.

Madeleine: Right. Doing something is another way to process the grief—giving blood, sending help. Then we can feel we're contributing.

Oprah: Absolutely. Is there any way to make sense of this calamity?

Madeleine: The only way to make sense of why this happened is that we are a country that stands up for freedom, democracy, and human rights. The people who did this are opposed to those policies.

Oprah: Why do they hate us so much?

Madeleine: I think it's partly because we are who we are. They don't believe in our system of government. The Taliban hate us because we believe in equality for women. And we could assume that Osama bin Laden might hate Americans because he thinks our presence in the Middle East has desanctified sacred land. So there are different reasons. There have been very interesting discussions about whether the terrorists who attacked the United States are crazy. I'm willing to buy that they're not irrational, they're just determined in their version of fanaticism.

Oprah: I'm with you. Whenever you label people as crazy, you can then just dismiss their acts. You don't have to analyze how a tragedy happened or consider that it may happen again.

Madeleine: Exactly.

Oprah: Is there a way to hate the act without hating those responsible for it?

Madeleine: That's the hardest part—how do we respond without becoming like them? Hate, emotionalism, and frustration are not policies. It's hard not to cross over into hate when everyone is so revved up, but it doesn't prove anything for us to kill innocent civilians. In the past the United States has been criticized for not responding strongly enough, as in the case of the embassy bombings. Though we determined that those attacks were tied to Osama bin Laden, we weren't sure where he was, so we didn't want to just wantonly bomb and hit a lot of innocent people. We found ourselves being criticized for not doing enough, and yet we didn't want to be exactly like the terrorists.

Oprah: Could we have protected ourselves against the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks?

Madeleine: I don't know the answer to that. What most Americans don't know is that we have prevented a lot of terrorist incidents before this one. There's always the dog that doesn't bark that you don't know about. We need to be very careful not to get so into the blame game that we forget those who died. The challenge is to draw lessons from the past and move forward without spending time finger-pointing.

Oprah: Were you in Washington, D.C., the morning the Pentagon was hit?

Madeleine: Yes. When I got a call at home, I turned on the TV to see the second plane hit [the World Trade Center]. Later I got in my car and heard on the radio that smoke was coming out of the Pentagon. I couldn't believe it! Washington suddenly became a small town. I've lived in D.C. for 30 years, and I used to walk the streets without anybody recognizing me. But as I was driving downtown, people rolled down their windows and said, "Have you heard what's happening?" I'd say, "I'm listening to this the same way you are." Then I heard that there was a hijacked plane heading toward Washington, so I had to deal with being in the heart of that. I was also checking on my son-in-law in New York. Both he and my daughter turned out to be fine. Like everyone, I was looking for my family.

Oprah: Has this horrendous act caused us to pause and think about what really matters?

Madeleine: Yes. It makes us all realize that what we care most about is family. After such a crisis you want to just touch them—and if you can't physically touch them, you want to at least make sure they're all right. That gives you a sense of security. And then you think about your country: "Why did this happen here?" The horror of this was so unimaginable, you almost had to ask other people, "Did this really happen?" It was like waking up from a nightmare.

Oprah: After such a crisis, do you think it's possible for us to be better people?

Madeleine: I hope so. I don't want to sound Pollyannaish, but I hope that out of a tragedy like this, something good will come. I hope we understand we're one family. In the past, New York has been seen as a place where people are cold-blooded, yet New Yorkers are behaving wonderfully toward one another and they are helping one another. There's this whole sense of caring for each other. And I think that is excellent. I am also moved by the unbelievable bravery of the firefighters, the police officers, and the rescue workers. Sometimes the worst can bring out the best in us.

I can only hope that as a country we won't start disliking Arab-Americans. We have to be careful not to be prejudiced against a whole group that had nothing to do with this. The magic of America is that we're a free and open society with a mixed population. Part of our security is our freedom.

Oprah: Turning against the Arab community is ridiculous. If the terrorists had been white, would we suddenly be prejudiced against whites? No.

Madeleine: That's right.

Oprah: As a country, what kind of action should we guard against in our anger?

Madeleine: We should guard against wholesale revenge—it doesn't get you anywhere. I do think there should be military action. The question is, "Who deserves it and where should it be? And how do we approach those states that give support to terrorist groups, even if those groups had nothing to do with this attack?" The time has come for those states to understand that if they want to be part of the international system, they have to follow the rules of that system by dealing with the extremists in their own societies. As strong as the United States is, we can't deal with terrorism alone.

We need to understand that this is a long-term problem that will require a lot of strength to handle. And given that innocent civilians have died, the issue now is whether we'll be willing to accept that some American military may have to sacrifice their lives to make the rest of us free.

Oprah: How can we balance our liberties as Americans with the need for increased security measures?

Madeleine: We'll all have to deal with longer lines and more questions. But as a country what we can't do is decide to close down and trust no one.

Oprah: What is the role of government in all of this?

Madeleine: I am a believer in the idea that government is on the side of the people, not on the backs of the people. We have to see that the government is helping us by trying to develop rules to make our country safer. What none of us want is an authoritarian country in which we all have to wear identification cards around our necks.

Oprah: Do you believe we can heal the wounds of September 11?

Madeleine: I do. There is a strength and spirit in Americans that is rare and unparalleled anywhere in the world. We have a resilience that most people don't have, and trials bring out the best in us. What happened on September 11 will be seared into our brains forever. But I believe that we will move beyond this. We have to.


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