The 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, marked the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial at the site of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. A fitting counterpart to that memorial would be the creation of an online portal tentatively called “America, the Social Network,” according to this opinion piece by David N. Lawrence, Steven M. Witzel, Stephen Labaton, Arthur Grubert, John A. Squires, Gil Childers and Matthew H. Lawrence. Lawrence, Grubert, Childers and Squires helped establish Regulatory Data Corp. (RDC) — a data and technology risk-management company — focused on corporate compliance solutions to such issues as money laundering, fraud, government corruption and terrorism financing. The portal would present America, past and present, to its own citizens and the world and serve as a digital crossroads for feedback and exchanges with online friends across the globe.

“For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” — George Washington, Letter to the Tuoro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island

“We depend on the innovations of the citizens of a free economy…. In the long term, it’s the element of surprise that gives us the edge over more controlled economies.”
— Carver Mead, California Institute of Technology computer scientist 

On September 11, 2001, our world changed. We were instantly transfixed and possibly forever transformed. Technology and innovation were turned against us in the space of 77 minutes. The event was unforeseen. The consequences remain beyond calculation. Knowingly and willfully, a radical ideology targeted the body and spirit of one of the most remarkable political, economic, legal and cultural experiments in the history of the world — an experiment that Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.”

Terrorists flew three planes filled with passengers and fuel into occupied symbols of America’s economy and national defense. A fourth hijacked airliner crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania before it could reach Washington, D.C., and the nation’s leadership. That plane was brought down by passengers and crew who were conscripted into heroism, “armed with the knowledge that America was under attack,” as The 9/11 Commission Report described their actions.

Some 3,000 lives — from approximately 50 countries — were lost that day. Spouses, parents, children, friends all died in the attacks. Thousands more would be included in the short- and long-term injury calculus. The Pentagon was set ablaze. A rural parcel was plowed under. Twin towers that reflected the world’s desire to connect through trade crumbled into a scarred and toxic cavity. The immediate response of police and fire first responders redefined duty and valor. For so many, either following or interrupting that day’s routine determined their fate.

Shock encircled the globe at fiber-optic speed. Technology enabled the coverage and replay of events that were virtually beyond comprehension, freezing memories as to exactly where we were when the first plane hit. Our modernity left no doubt about what had occurred — only about how, why and who had caused it to happen.

9/11/01 to 9/1/11–A Nation Reacts: For years, a stand-still site known as Ground Zero signaled our inability to recover. Debris became our default memorial for pain, loss and devastation. Today, we reflect upon a world financial center that is being reborn, a Pentagon long-since repaired and a Pennsylvania field left hallowed. But 9/11 did not end on 9/11/01. It still yields casualties, consequences and much eloquence about life’s meaning. On this anniversary, we have remained on high alert. In America we move on, yet we find occasions to pause over what we have lost, learned, must never forget and may yet achieve as the “we-the-people” nation.

Historian Simon Schama recently posed the question, “What makes a successful memorial?” On the occasion of 9/11/11, it may be appropriate to use our technological know-how to provide ourselves and the world with a greater understanding of our nation, and to receive global data and feedback. There may be no better antidote to terror and totalitarianism, no better way to honor and value the sacrifices of so many, no better means of healing and no better time to build such an online platform.

It is now within our grasp to provide global digital access to the past and continuing narrative of our nation — to create a digital wonder equal in its impact and inspiration to our national monuments and historic sites. A new Statue of Liberty through which we offer access to our people, history, laws, schools, government, press, systems of commerce, historic documents, religions, charities, books, music, films, plays, television, recordings, sports, art and more.

This digital portal could be called “America, The Social Network” and used to host virtual tours of our geographic and architectural sites, universities, cultural centers, monuments and events — plus the chance to blog and tweet with thought leaders in the academic, business and political worlds as well as with celebrities. On-line learning with access to books, recordings, great lectures and lecturers could become part of this site.

Accessible to all in a variety of languages, this portal would transcend geographic borders, economic circumstances, censorship, rules of immigration and the requirements of travel. Let everyone have the chance to pass through our digital doors and draw their own conclusions. Let’s put American exceptionalism, creativity, innovations, successes, struggles, perfections and imperfections on display for all to see.

Indeed, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter don’t simply connect people — they cement relationships. As new-media expert Clay Shirky recently noted in an article in Foreign Affairs, social media’s real potential lies not only in democratizing information, but also in supporting civil society and the public sphere.

Where We Are Now

If history does not always repeat itself in our country, it often rhymes and raps. To date, our responses to this new Pearl Harbor “day of infamy” upon our soil have been predictably American in range and depth. From the moment of first impact we have persevered together to rescue, recover, fight and find our way back.

At home and abroad, in actions communicable in 140 characters or less, we:

  • Received global condolences, mourned and prayed
  • Beamed twin towers of light to the sky, signaling our resilience
  • Sought accountability, justice, deterrence and security.
  • Honored heroes, competed to design memorials, and in the words of Peggy Noonan, stayed “loyal to pain … and the glory that came out of it.”
  • Channeled outrage through speech, print, broadcasts, Internet, litigation and the ballot box.
  • Created meaning through writing, art, music and multimedia displays.
  • Implemented best, but imperfect, efforts to compensate victims through charities and special funds.
  • Convened a commission to investigate causes, lapses and what needs to be done.
  • Recruited volunteers who re-enlisted multiple times, bearing the costs of war disproportionately.
  • Invaded a foreign country upon mistaken premises.
  • Funded new agencies and passed new security laws.
  • Argued about “enhanced interrogations” and “enemy combatants.”
  • Captured and killed terrorists, including the man responsible for 9/11.
  • Petitioned courts to balance the rights of individuals against the exigencies of homeland security.
  • Heard conspiracy theories of an inside job and experienced unauthorized leaks in the press and digital media.
  • Discovered homegrown threats and thwarted further attacks.
  • Made immigration and unguarded borders a national issue.
  • Liberated men, women and children, at least temporarily, from unspeakable oppression.
  • Underestimated costs and ballooned the federal deficit.
  • By necessity, left conclusions about the wisdom of our decisions to future historians.

Much now remains to be done. Today, a perfect storm of prolonged military conflict, financial crisis, economic weakness and runaway debt highlights America’s vulnerability for all to see — diminishing our ability to influence our friends, to say nothing of our foes.  The West’s relation with Islam is a work in progress. New forms of communication enlist continuing opposition to our nation. We are all too aware that 9/11 has become an occasion for schadenfreude — joy in the misfortune of others — in various parts of the globe. America and its role in the world are being tested on all sides.

The present crisis, however, is simply the current one. It is neither the first or the most severe, nor will it be the last. America has always been judged by the country’s ability to recognize the teachable and learnable moments that offer opportunity.

9/11/11: An Opportunity to Connect with a Connected World: With certainty, the world was altered by the day of attacks. But in the intervening 10 years, the world would be “flattened” by other events. Independent occurrences have converged to provide direction about who we are and where we might go. In the space between then and now, the gifts of transparency, access, accessibility and connectivity have been unwrapped for the taking.

9/11/01 vs. 9/11/11: The mass media had long been our window on the world. We were limited to broadcast and print in the information we received and the connections that we drew. Digital content had yet to come together with local realities. Cell phones were no smarter than landlines that were infinitely more reliable in connecting us. Electronic payment systems had yet to enable global entrepreneurship. Computers were facing away from, not into, our lives. There was no Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus, Skype, Tencent, Baidu or Youku. Cellphone cameras, tablet computers, e-readers, iPods, personal GPS systems and touch-screens still lay in the future. Maps and directions were static, not dynamic. Our children did not have the ability to speak globally and digitally through their fingers. Apple was on life-support.

Other digital connections were just beginning to be made without government planning, politics or radical plotting. Among these connections were search and advertising engines, data mining, wikis and sites for gaming, dating and creating fantasy sports teams. Celebrities were not more influential than the vast majority of politicians and journalists. Longstanding dictatorial regimes did not swiftly crumble under the weight of networks, downloads and 140-character messages.

We Start with Who We Are: Back in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan noted that America exists less as a place than as an idea. Post-9/11 legacies reflect the speed and ease with which such an idea can be shared and valued — or hijacked to be miscast and misunderstood.

America came together “in order to form a more perfect union.” Our Constitution ensures that this objective remains a work in progress. Our founding fathers gifted to us and the world certain self-evident truths that had long gone unrecognized and remain so in much of the globe. We continue to fully define and defend these truths that include freedom of speech, worship and the press, and the right to assembly, privacy, property, employment, consensual relationships and equal protection under the law.

The conduct of our domestic affairs has always been contentious and chaotic. We strive to address our deficiencies, including, poverty, unemployment and escalating debt. We seek to grow and innovate our way out of problems. We get angry and dissent. We have a rich history of deprecation and laughter directed at ourselves, life’s plights and others. No one, not even our foremost leaders, can escape the comedians’ public slings and arrows on a nightly basis. Yet we remain inspired by Lincoln’s vision of our nation and of what he called “the better angels of our nature.”

America as a Second Chance: Our cultural DNA was born of the immigrant experience and its joys and suffering. At some point in our family trees America was our second chance. We are the most diverse nation on earth, devoid of monolithic backgrounds, experiences or views. We share the struggle for freedom, self-determination and opportunity. We came here, voluntarily and involuntarily, through religious, economic, political and enslaved circumstance. Those who were native to our lands suffered these waves of new arrivals and for the longest period lost their lives and rights.

All who are here have emerged from a past that suffered discrimination and mistrust as part of the process of being seen as equal to those who had come before. We all stem from backgrounds that endured racial and religious nicknames and slurs. The vestiges of such practices remain part of our nation’s continuing challenge.

Many of our political, commercial, civic, academic, spiritual and artistic leaders hail from the most diverse and humble beginnings. Some of our greatest scientific, technological and idea innovators left their birthplaces to seek our nation’s freedom and opportunities. People enter our borders, both legally and illegally, in search of bettering themselves and their families. In the vast majority of cases, we have gained from the human capital we attract.

As we move forward, we intermarry and redefine roles and relationships. In times of crisis, we suffer and survive together. 9/11 was an equal-opportunity event for America. We came to the aid of one another without regard to race, religion, place of origin or sexual orientation. 9/11 told the tale of more than an attack and mass murder. It told the American story of how we respond and support one another, and of our culture of charity and volunteerism that knows no borders.

It is no accident that Muslim-Americans pursue the American dream by teaching, building businesses, holding public office, joining law enforcement bodies, buying homes and raising and educating their families. It is no accident that in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Court justices and members of Congress removed — and then lost track of — their shoes as they participated in opening the first mosque in Washington, D.C. It is no accident that, according to a recent Gallup poll, Muslim-Americans are the most optimistic of all major religious groups in America about their individual and their community’s future.

We cherish the right of self-determination and the quality of self-reliance. We believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and the right of ownership and the ability to profit from our accomplishments. Tenacity is instinctive and expected, and risk is rewarded. We protect people and physical property, as well as ideas and innovations, through the rule of law. And because the line between success and failure can be thin, we recognize the need to protect and support the less fortunate and able. Even without touching our soil, citizens of the world become Americans through our music, films, books, artists, athletes, food and stories of individual achievement.

We have arrived at this date affected as one nation, yet still only potentially connected to ourselves and to the world. No blueprint exists for how to move forward. As Winston Churchill once observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

We remain a new, complex and evolving experiment in nationhood that requires a recurring explanation — internally and externally — about where we have been, where we are and where we might go. We are voted on or off the world’s stage on a nightly basis. Our nation is a permanent reality show. Like it or not, we are judged by a digital global audience that seeks around-the-clock information and explanations through non-traditional avenues of access. The appetite and curiosity of the mobile and networked world citizenry grows exponentially.

Building America, the Social Network

After 235 years, believe it or not, America may have just begun the process of offering itself to the world. An opening may now exist to be defined not merely by a tragedy and the ensuing response, but by the totality of this nation’s continuing work and aspiration to serve as the world’s “last best hope.” Following neither polls nor “pols,” an opportunity may exist for America to leverage the same innovations that American technology has helped to nurture for the world, and to find a common ground that defies partisan politics.

Just as there have been no boundaries around the creation and development of offerings from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and so many others, we have no preconceptions about how America as a social network should be constructed. We hereby open this idea to those who can far better imagine the connectivity of technology, the liberating impact of content and the many ways in which America and its people might be presented to the world.

The first to embody this nation’s principles were ordinary citizens — neither elected nor seeking to become a class of permanent politicians. They included farmers, merchants, lawyers, bankers, writers, printers, inventors, blacksmiths, ministers, doctors and teachers. They could draw upon the resources of America’s first lending library — the social network of its day — that Benjamin Franklin founded in Philadelphia in 1731. And as Franklin noted in his autobiography, this library played a role in educating the public and democratizing American society.

The time is again at hand for America’s citizen-leaders to step forward. This is a present-day call to the entrepreneurial, private, academic, artistic, religious and not-for-profit sectors to serve as the framers and content providers of America’s digital portal. We call upon America’s ordinary citizens, who have been privately leading, shaping and articulating our free-enterprise system and our democratic exchange of ideas, to put on display where we succeed, fail, debate, create and are headed.

Since our fight for independence, America has benefited from the kindness of friends and strangers who have recognized our alignment with their self-interests and our potential importance to freedom in the world. On this anniversary, our nation’s security is no less linked to others. Global law enforcement officials stress that their effectiveness is correlated to a vigilant and caring global public. To the extent that America is more accessible, connected and responsive on a worldwide basis, to that extent we hold the potential to be “friended” by billions of people around the world.

In deference to the three most important rules of real estate — location, location, location — it may prove fitting to host America’s social network on the Ground Zero sites of New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania — before the portal is lifted, perhaps closer to heaven, into  the cloud-computing sphere.

On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, we would be well-served to recall the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, spoken as the Civil War was ending. His insights and advice also came in the context of unspeakable loss, uninvited conflict and the throb of pain from still-open wounds. His words act as a reminder of how far the country had come and the distances yet to go:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

As a living and evolving memorial to 9/11, “America, the Social Network” may prove messy, chaotic and controversial — just like entrepreneurship and America itself. And like America it may experience multiple amendments and failures. But not even the inventors of today’s leading networks could have foreseen the impact of access, connectivity and enablement of expression that their creations have wrought. So Steve, Jack, Biz, Mark, Jeff, Sergei, Larry, Bill, Warren, Oprah and all who might aspire and inspire, your ideas would be most welcome. We look forward to the day when Americans and the world can say, “America — there’s an app for that.”

Editor’s note: David N. Lawrence is associate general counsel and a managing director at Goldman Sachs. Steven M. Witzel is a partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, and along with Lawrence, a former Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York. Stephen Labaton, a former senior writer at The New York Times, advises companies on issues at the intersection of law and public policy. Arthur Grubert is a vice president of Goldman Sachs and formerly served as a senior supervisor of the FBI. John A. Squires is co-chair of the intellectual property practice at Chadbourne & Parke, LLC. Gil Childers is the First Assistant United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, a former associate general counsel at Goldman Sachs and a former Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York. Matthew H. Lawrence is an undergraduate student at Brown University. The authors acknowledge the assistance and contributions of Leif Drake and Navdeep Parihar, who are associates with Goldman Sachs. The opinions expressed are the authors’ and do not reflect the views of the organizations with which they currently are, or have been, associated. Lawrence, Grubert, Childers and Squires helped establish Regulatory Data Corp. (RDC) — a data and technology risk-management company — focused on corporate compliance solutions to such issues as money laundering, fraud, government corruption and terrorism financing.