This week saw the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States. A friend re-posted a meme that caught my attention: “The best way to honor 9-11 is to be who we were on 9-12.” The implication being that on September 12, 2001, people rallied together as Americans. Lamar Alexander said it well, “[September 11] unified us as a country and showed our charitable instincts and reminded us of what we stood for and stand for.”
Responding to the friend’s post, I commented that I am not so sure that, were another event like September 11 to happen again, Americans would come together in the same way. I say that because we are in the midst of just such an event: a pandemic that has already killed more than 60 times as many Americans as the September 11 terrorist attacks and has had several individual days with death counts nearly as high as that fateful one in 2001. And I do not see a country united or rallying together.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for the increased partisan divide and the seeming inability to move from defining ourselves by what divides us, rather than embracing what we have in common. Twenty-four hour cable TV in which “news” is more “infotainment” than anything else. Social media which disconnects us, feeds our biases and makes it all too easy to demonize people in a way we would never do face-to-face. And there are many people in positions of power who benefit from creating chaos and stirring the pot, rather than calming the tensions and bringing people together.
The responsibility lies in many places: people in government, the media, and religious and civic organizations all need to demonstrate leadership and lower the temperature of our discourse. The accountability, though, lies with each of us to stop fanning the flames and to stop taking the bait. Instead, let’s work constructively to truly put America first by asking what we can do to help our neighbors, our community, and our country.
One of the biggest examples of this, when viewed from my perspective sitting outside the country, is the fight over mask-wearing and social distancing. People carry on as if they were being locked up and the key was being thrown away, when being asked to wear a lightweight mask and to remain a few extra feet apart. These are by any objective measure, small sacrifices to make to protect the health of the nation and enable the United States’ economy to reopen and recover as quickly as possible.
There is another quote that comes out of September 11 that captures this. It comes from Sandy Dahl, the wife of the captain of United Flight 93, Jason Dahl, which crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers attempted to overpower the hijackers. She said, “If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.”
These days, it seems that hatred and venom are our go-to responses. Perhaps we could truly honor the heroes and victims of the September 11 attacks by practicing patience, empathy, love, and compassion a bit more. And being willing to make small individual sacrifices for the greater good.