I remember where I was when it happened. I remember getting off the train in downtown Cleveland and jumping a bus to work, and having my receptionist ask me if I’d heard someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center. I remember responding “On purpose?” I remember my entire office crowded around a tiny 13-inch television set with bad reception watching the second plane hit. I remember going home. I remember shock. I remember seeing a weary, shell-shocked Peter Jennings on TV for 5 days, his tie loosened. sleeves rolled up. I remember everything being different after that.
I remember it so well that I don’t need a play-by-play, blow-by-blow, visceral reminder on every media outlet available. I can’t turn on my radio without hearing “day of” coverage. My television is flooded with specials and interviews and memorials—and it’s all rushing back. Like picking at a scab that’s finally starting to heal. This is not to minimize it at all. How can I? It is the single most potent, most powerful event my 38 years have ever witnessed. It was seismic. The world changed. We changed. I changed.
About 3 weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Washington DC on business. My meetings finished a day early and I decided to stay and take in the sights. See the things I’d never seen in my nation’s capital. I saw the White House and Capitol Building, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the Monuments: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the wars.
It was one thing to see the documents that forged a nation, to see the actual ideas that framed the country we live in. The monuments, those testaments to the cost of those ideas—these moved me to tears. I read Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address, the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil war, telling me that those deaths should not be in vain but should remind us “government of the people, by the people, for the people should never perish from the earth.” I stood in Martin Luther King Jr.’s place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he demanded America fulfill its promises. I wept at the wall of the Vietnam Memorial. I read South Korea’s words honoring our “sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” And I thought, “This is us. This is who we are. This is what it means to be an American.”
My daughter is a product of September 11, 2001. Literally. When she was 3 or 4, Kayla watched me cut something with a pretty big knife and asked me if she could use the knife. I quickly, and harshly, told her no, that she would cut herself, and turned my back to do something else. Being as headstrong as her mother, she grabbed the knife anyway and, sure enough, cut herself pretty good. On her face. She still has the scar to this day. And after she was mended up and the tears wiped away, she still wanted to use the knife. I learned two things about Kayla that day: that it was better for me to teach her the right way to do something than just tell her no (she’ll do it anyway and damn near kill herself) and that she is fearless. Like a honey badger. It’s simply who she is.
There is an incredible amount of vitriol in our discourse these days. There is venom in our political system, angst in our economy, tumult on Wall Street, anxiety on Main Street. It is easy to be pulled into one partisan faction or another, to turn a simple difference of opinion into discord and destructive commentary. We’re better than who we have become. We’re more than who the media would have you believe or who our political parties portray. We’re more than this.
And, like I said, this isn’t a 9/11 post. It’s a 9/12 post.
It is really about who we became afterwards. After shock became realization, after conspiracy and conjecture turned into fact, we became us. They did this to us. Us! We were attacked, we were victimized. We pulled together and mourned together and found revenge and resolve together. The idle differences that separate us—race, religion, political affiliation—these mundane trappings disintegrated. The color of someone’s skin was irrelevant. Their partisan beliefs became immaterial. Our ideals reigned supreme. Our allegiance to this nation and what it stood for, what it was founded upon was the only valid test. I could look at my neighbor, look at my co-worker, sit next to someone on the train and share a collective sense of loss and identity. We were the same, this neighbor, this co-worker, this commuter, and I—we were We and Us and we were Americans. We were in it together.
Let’s get back to that, to those people. It’s simply who we are.