What happened to the country we all saw on Sept. 12, 2001? It’s still here, but you have to look.
Like most of you, I can remember the day in crisp detail.
It was a beautiful, glorious September morning. I had a full day planned as I rolled out with the sun. It was the first time we would observe my father’s birthday since his death in May 2001. Mother wanted to go to the cemetery, since that’s what we do in the South.
Rhonda had worked late the night before, so I let her sleep in while I called the sheriff’s office, police and magistrate to see if I had anything to write about that day. I was in the kitchen of our apartment, which was one-quarter of a grand old house built in 1901. I turned the radio on so I could listen to the morning news. I was waiting on a call from Mike Simmons, who would become my boss, about coming to work for him at the old Bladen Journal.
It was a big day. It was a beautiful day. It should have been a good day.
I was rattling through some now-forgotten notes and drinking coffee when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
Quietly as I could, I went to the living room and turned on the television. Sure enough, the landmark was smoking. I woke Rhonda up, just in time to see the second plane hit.
I spent the day with my mother; Rhonda was on the air at the radio station. I held my mom’s shaking hand as we watched the chaos.
The next day, our country came together. The pride, the patriotism, the power that we showed when we stood together — holding hands with strangers, as the song says – it was incredible. People appreciated police, fire and rescue personnel again. We could all agree that bin Laden and his brand of Islam were the enemy. We all understood it would be a long road, but we also understood that we had to do it together.
We were in it, together.
That helped start the healing process.
But now there are new wounds.
We have football players honoring a convicted rapist who refused to comply with police, and gave every indication of wishing the officers harm. We have people screaming “Death to America,” the very country that gives every single one of us the ability to make a difference, since we are free.
We have politicians so caught up in their desire for power that they eagerly await and even pursue the destruction of America “as you have known it,” to quote a certain congresswoman whose hairstyle has now become infamous. We have another congresswoman saying that “some people did something” on Sept. 11, 2001, and it’s not that important.
We have civil rights proponents who have decided, in the ultimate irony, to turn back the clock 60 years, to favor other races above one.
We have a former presidential candidate who was not held to task for her role in the death of Americans in Libya, and who even asked what difference did it make – while trying to shift the blame from terrorists to an obscure Jewish filmmaker, all the while preventing the rescue those Americans deserved, since it might hurt someone’s feelings.
There’s so much more that has changed, more than I can comprehend in one sitting. Especially when I remember the people who came together on Sept. 12, 2001, less than 24 hours after the attacks that brought us so close for far too short a span of time.
Nineteen years later, I wonder where that America went. I see folks arming themselves; I see spoiled brats demanding and getting everything they want, since they threaten to play the race card or burn something. Law enforcement officers having to think twice or three times about whether a call is legitimate or an ambush. I see elected officials so blinded by politics that they allow their cities to burn rather than ask for help from the “wrong” political party.
But then I see something else.
I see a line of fire trucks escorting the body of a firefighter to a funeral home. I see the smiling, awkward, proud photo of a young man with a recently shorn head courtesy of his new employer, the United States Army.
I see another young man stopping traffic on a busy downtown street to make sure an elderly lady got safely across. I see folks in drive-thru lines paying for those behind them. I see diners in a restaurant striking up conversations with strangers, agreeing that there are problems in society, but none that can’t be solved with God and good manners.
I see a State Trooper changing the tire for a couple on the side of the highway. I see grocery store cashiers hollering “Air hug!” when they see customers who have been absent for a while, due to the pandemic.
I see two little kids fishing with their families and becoming fast friends – at least for the day – and drawing their families together despite the physical differences between them.
All the things I described above I saw in the last week.
They all involved folks of different races.
But I didn’t see any skin colors.
I only saw red, white and blue.
You have to try sometimes, but you can see America again. Sometimes the whispers of what we were and what we can be are screamed down by the petulant masses. But even those small, quiet gestures show that we are better than the problems that divide us, and those who desperately want to profit from them. We showed the world that we were better than the terrorists who hate us because we love freedom. They hate us because we love, period.
We just need to show that to each other again, like we did starting on Sept. 12, 2001, before we let the haters and the politicians and the rabble-rousers and the profiteers of pain squirm their way back between us like a flea-ridden chicken stealing coyote forcing his sneaky way into a chicken coop gate. We need folks who are willing to hold doors, ask permission, offer to help, pay it forward, gently (or sometimes loudly) disagree with the crowd that’s afraid to tell the emperor that he ain’t wearing any clothes.
Just when I think there’s no hope, there’s a glimmer, like a flag barely lifting in a spring breeze before a thunderstorm blasts through and cleans everything, leaving it fresh and new.
Whenever I see those little reminders of all that is good, I realize that America hasn’t really gone anywhere. It’s still right here, where it was before 9/11, where it was on 9/12. It’s where it always has been – in the hearts of those who love their country, despite its flaws, because they know we’re still the greatest country on Earth. It’s an America that was a long way toward solving the problems of its past—maybe with imperfect solutions, but nothing’s perfect – when we decided to take a left turn somewhere and hide what makes us special.
Where did America go?
It’s right here.
We just have to remember that we’re the ones who put it away.