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September 24, 2001
Volume 79, Number 39
CENEAR 79 39 p. 5
ISSN 0009-2347
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Attila E. Pavlath, ACS President

During my 70+ years of life-time, I have heard this statement uttered by many leaders. However, even those of us who have been involved personally in armed conflicts could not have imagined the events of Sept. 11. "America under attack" was unthinkable.

In the past, we have been exposed to movies with spectacular special effects, but we could walk out of the theater any time to resume our everyday life. Unfortunately, we are not living in a movie. In the past, I have written frequently that we have to face the problems of our profession with the changing times. While we wish we could go back to the good old times, we cannot. After Sept. 11, this statement is a hundred times more valid for our lives as Americans than it was in our specific roles as chemical scientists.

In the 1970s, when the hijacking of planes became commonplace, airport security was tightened considerably as a preventive measure. At that time, I heard people complaining about the new security measures as an abridgement of their own personal freedoms. My arguments with them led nowhere. The likelihood that their plane would be hijacked was thought to be low, and anyhow, they said, it would be only a temporary nuisance since it was generally a short detour to Havana.

Sept. 11, however, opened many eyes. These terrorist acts could have happened anywhere--not just in New York City or Washington, D.C. Even if you are not a frequent traveler, the plane on which you or a family member or friend traveled could have been any of the four hijacked commercial planes. But most importantly, what happened is not a make-believe story. If you close your eyes, because the details are too gory, it will not help. This is our own continuing life, with no intermission. We have to wait until the end.

Fortunately, we have an advantage over the movies. We do not have to sit passively; we can do something. The heroes of our time apparently fought the hijackers to prevent them from perpetrating another large-scale tragedy somewhere else, even though it cost those passengers their life. The heroes of our time are searching for survivors among the ruins, even though it could endanger their lives.

What can we do? I wrote a letter together with the chair of the ACS Board of Directors to New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to offer the expertise of the American Chemical Society. The chair of the ACS Chemical Safety Committee was quick to offer our expertise, and I am asking every ACS division and local section to look into what they could do. We will coordinate with them. I am asking you to do whatever you can do as an individual. If nothing else, stand tall and unite as a country.

In the meantime, I will not curtail my visits to local sections. I will go anywhere I am wanted. Do whatever you can to show that we cannot be brought down by these terrorist actions. The cynic might downplay this as a grandstand, just to make one feel good, but great ideas are frequently originated by individuals, not necessarily by large think tanks. But even if you cannot find anything you can do, it will strengthen the community spirit that we must have. Four years ago, Judith Giordan, a candidate for ACS president-elect, used a phrase to emphasize the challenge our profession faced: "We are all in this together." Now, this slogan has a nationwide validity.

Today, we frequently hear the question: What's in it for me? The answer is evident. In a speech in 1947, Winston Churchill said: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." We must realize that democracy is not guaranteed without working for it.

It is time to ask yourself: What have I done to make this land my land? When 45 years ago during the Hungarian Revolution, the cars of the American Embassy carried large U.S. flags to identify them, I wishfully looked at the flag, dreaming about living under democracy instead of under a dictatorship. We must realize that in spite of the problems, we are still privileged to live in the greatest country of the world. Where else could someone starting penniless from the gate of a refugee camp with a family become the president of the world's largest scientific organization? Only in America! I am not ashamed to admit that whenever I look at the flag or hear OUR national anthem, I still frequently have tears in my eyes. I do not apologize even if some might question the propriety of writing this in a scientific magazine. Kate Smith made the words I feel unforgettable by her singing--God bless America!

My writings in the past, as those of other ACS Board of Director members, had a small print disclaimer stating that the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the American Chemical Society. I am sure that this is one of those rare cases when such a statement is not needed.

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