Where were you on that day 20 years ago—11 September 2001? Like asking older generations, “Where were you the day the space shuttle exploded?” or “What were you doing when you learned President Kennedy had been assassinated?” most everyone has a vivid recollection. Catastrophic events such as these seem to make time stand still, seering the moment, the emotions, the unquiet in our memories.
Like so many others, my family woke to the news breaking on television. Actually, I received a call at 6:00 am from a close friend back east telling me to “Turn on your television!!” His voice was animated but not panicky. We both suspected what had happened; the unfolding drama only reinforced our suspicions. Having been involved in counter terrorism for years, the events that day were a shock… but hardly a surprise. Terrorists had been targeting America and her citizens for decades. That day, they achieved major success on US soil.
9/11 was more visceral than either the space shuttle disaster or Kennedy’s assassination. This event was on a par with December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It shook the nation to its core.
Now, 20 years on, many Americans will reflect on that day. Some through the prism of 20 years of combat just concluded in Afghanistan. Others through the cost—emotional, diplomatic, national treasure—of those 20 years. Hell… there will be as many different reflections as there are people recalling them. But as we focus on the event and the terror it evoked, I would ask: “Do you remember how, for a brief period, Americans were drawn closer to one another, civility was on the rise, and a sense of patriotism was suddenly in full view?” Too short a period, by my lights!
I suggest a different approach to commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Instead of looking back on the horror and remembering lives lost, why don’t we—every one of us—reflect on the sense of unity that briefly swept the nation, the compelling need to bolster one another after the initial shock, the professed desire to do something purposeful. In short, reflect on the spirit that infused our nation… a spirit that proved all too fleeting.
My fervent hope is that each of us will reflect on that day AND the 20 intervening years leading to this anniversary. What have we done to strengthen the nation? To come together as Americans did after Pearl Harbor? It is easy to draw or dismiss parallels between the two events to avoid asking ourselves hard questions. A tougher question: are we proud of what we as individuals and as a nation have done in the aftermath of 9/11? An earlier generation fought a world war and returned home to build an America that became—and in many respects remains—a beacon to the world and leader of the free world. Those efforts were neither perfect nor totally altruistic, but they preserved global peace for close to three quarters of a century (and counting).
What will current generations’ legacies be? None can know; they have yet to be written. But know one thing: they will not be kind if we, as a nation, don’t begin to coalesce around solutions to our problems. Disregard for the moment whether we have avenged 9/11. Whether we won the war in Afghanistan. Instead, focus on the internal divisiveness that is holding our nation hostage and causing great concern amongst our allies around the world. We are a nation founded on compromise and pursuit of equality. We seem to have lost our way recently in the first regard. The latter—front and center in an on-going national debate—is NOT a promise broken as many would have us believe. Our democratic system is messy… and slow... and cumbersome… and designed prevent power becoming overly vested in one person or institution. I believe the arc of history demonstrates the United States continues to trend in a positive direction—albeit doing so too slowly, too encumbered by processes designed to ensure reasonable compromise, and with far too many stutter-steps to satisfy many of its citizens. As one of my high school teachers repeatedly intoned, “Well, welcome to democracy.”
While it is easy to say, “Be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” what does that mean in America today? I believe it means take stock of what you are saying and doing. Ask yourself whether your words and actions contribute to finding a reasonable path forward… or contribute to divisiveness. Yes, it is largely a binary choice! Be honest with yourself. In doing so, you will honor those who have served and sacrificed for this country as well as those who genuinely and tirelessly strive to bring the United States ever closer to the ideals on which it was founded.
As I reflect on 9/11, I realize I, too, must be a patient patriot and have a lot more work to do.