Bob Van Oosterhout

Speech to United States Senate on Enactment of the USA Act March 19, 2002
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There are very few times when life stops, there is a moment of realization and we are stunned into inactivity. 

That is what happened on September 11, 2001.  For most of us it was a day when doing nothing was the most appropriate response.  In contrast to the heros of that day who gave their lives in the hope of rescue, there was little the rest of us could do but set aside millions of things that we thought desperately needed to be done and think about what was really important. 

America got in touch with its soul on 9-1-1.  We came together and opened our hearts and minds to those who were suffering.  Life stopped, and for a moment we understood what was most precious and meaningful in our lives.

Supporters of the terrorist organizations describe Americans as arrogant, self-centered and greedy.  They say we don’t care about our fellow human beings - that our only concern is to own and consume more and more in order to fill an insatiable appetite for wealth and power.  The response of Americans to the tragedies of September 11 was an important step in proving them wrong. 

In the epicenter of tragedy, profound hope and courage created a beacon that touched the soul of all Americans. When a light shines through darkness, we see what is really there.  What was hidden is now known, even though darkness may return.

It takes courage to realize that we are not a perfect society, and we have in no way created a perfect world.  But hope brings light that reveals our true nature.  America’s response in the days following September 11 showed the world that we can rise above darkness; that the true nature of the American people is hope, courage and unity.

The seeds of hope, courage, and unity that were sown throughout our nation on that day have not disappeared.  Thanks to the Senators gathered here today and the Points of Light Foundation, those seeds have germinated and developed strong deep roots as the USA Act gathered support and was signed into law this winter.  It is fitting that the first sprouts appear just as spring is beginning.

The Unity in Service to America Act brings new hope to our country in two ways.  The first is the fact that it grew out of the prayer and reflection of an average person with nothing to gain except what we all gain by creating a better world.  I stand here as living proof that any single person can make a difference.   I had an idea.  I sent an e-mail to Senator Stabenow.  It became the law.  Thank you Senator Stabenow, it is a tremendous honor to be a part of this.

The second reason for hope is in what the USA Act can accomplish.  It provides an opportunity for every American to expand and extend the beacon of hope that was lit by thousands of people who lost their lives on that day.  Think about what it must have been like for police and firefighters climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center or entering a burning Pentagon driven only by the hope of helping another human being.  Think what it was like for the people who walked down those stairs in a calm and orderly fashion in the hope that everyone could make it. Think of the people on Flight 93 acting to stop greater loss of life, even though they would die in a Pennsylvania field.  Every person lost in that tragedy hoped that they would see their loved ones again and yet had the courage to recognize that other lives were also at stake.

Was this hope and courage lost in the rubble of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania?  I don’t think so.  The light of their hope and courage has touched the soul of this nation and the USA Act gives each one of us an opportunity to do something about it.

We can honor those lost in this tragedy and give meaning to their loss by spreading hope, courage and unity throughout our nation.  We do this by opening our hearts to those around us, by responding to unmet needs and by making an ongoing effort to improve the lives of our neighbors.

In the initial proposal I suggested a goal that each State would complete at least one community service project to honor each one of the victims of 9-11.  This adds up to over 150,000 projects nationwide. People from larger States may need to cross border to assist with projects in smaller States - that would be fitting with the spirit of the Act. 

The families of each person lost in the tragedy could go anywhere in this country and see how their loved one had been honored while recognize that their hope and courage helped us to take steps to realize our true nature and potential. 

This goal was not written into the USA Act, but I believe that it is not only possible but essential that we strive to accomplish it.  This is not something to be done on the periphery as an afterthought.  It needs to come from the heart of America and involve as many of us that were affected by the tragedy of September 11.

It would take a tremendous amount of heart and courage to meet this goal.   Remembering the heart and courage it took to walk into or slowly out of a burning building about to collapse or being in a plane about to crash can help to sustain our efforts.

When we open our hearts, we open our minds and see what is possible.  No one of us can change the world alone, but together, one project at a time, we can send a message to terrorists about who we really are and what we can accomplish when we are United in Service as Americans.