“Eleven years ago, we watched in horror as madmen with premodern visions crashed airplanes into the symbols of modernity and power. Each of us remembers where we were the moment we heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Each of us remembers where we were when the towers fell, a moment beyond terror.
“That fear, that anger, lives on in our hearts as Pearl Harbor Day did for our forebears.
“In the aftermath, I described the attacks as the result of a failure of ‘empathy’–a lack of connection between the United States and parts of the world that had fallen behind in the race towards globalization, places nurturing grievances we had never noticed.
“I still believe that. But I have seen something from the Oval Office I could not have seen from Springfield, which is that guardians of a nation do not often have the luxury of empathy.
“Ten years ago, I opposed the Iraq war. And this year, we concluded it. Ten years ago, I believed we should strengthen our forces in Afghanistan, to destroy Al Qaeda and then allow the people of that nation to take responsibility for their own destiny. Today, we are on our way to that goal.
“What I could not understand in 2001 or 2002, what no one can understand who has not held this office, is the immense sacrifice that would require.
“On that last night in April, 2011, when I had given the order to proceed to Abottabad and to find Osama bin Laden, I looked out into a sea of journalists and politicians and the big and bold personalities of Washington, DC at the correspondents’ dinner. I saw the jokes that had been written for me, and I could already imagine the stories on television and the headlines in the newspaper the next day and it all seemed so very small, so distant.
“I thought of the nameless men who were quietly undertaking one of the most dangerous missions ever devised in order to close a terrible chapter in our history, to bring justice to the victims of September 11th and send a message to anyone who would attack our nation ever again.
“I thought of the losses that might happen, and of the wise counsel of those who told me the risk was too great, the political damage far too high to proceed.
“In that moment, I also thought of the victims of 9/11, and I realized there was something I had never understood before about the presidency, which is how powerless it is. I had made a decision but could not know the outcome, though I would bear the burden of its consequences.
“What lifted me in that moment of quiet, public self-doubt was the feeling I owed it to the thousands that fell on that bright Tuesday in September to do my best.
“I do not doubt that another president would have done the same thing. In this election season, it is tempting to say otherwise. And to the extent my campaign has done so, I regret it.
“No president could have resisted the moral force of those three thousand souls urging him or her forward–not for vengeance but for justice, not just to end a conflict but to begin a new era, to move the mission of humanity forward, towards its true potential.
“It is because of the bravery of the men and women in uniform that we can imagine a day beyond terror, that we can begin to face up to the mundane but no less challenging tasks that lie ahead of our nation in the months ahead.
“I must admit that in just four years they have taught me more about the presidency than I thought there was to know. I hope to do them justice by carrying out those lessons, as President, for four more.”