We always remember Sept. 11, 2001, as well we should.
I just wish we could remember Sept. 12 of the same year.
While firefighters, EMS, search teams, police officers and volunteers were pawing their way into the wreckage in New York, fire crews still fought the last of the flames at the Pentagon, and investigators began picking through the rubble of an airliner outside a little town none of us had ever heard of — we were all Americans again for a while.
The little church up the street from my mother’s home (it was supposedly the oldest in town) already kept its doors open most weekdays. One or two people always seemed to wander in. There were crowds there on Sept. 12, people patiently waiting their turn to get inside, or sometimes just holding each other and praying on the sidewalk. Other churches had visitors as well, even in the middle of the week, on what was usually a workday.
American flags were everywhere, even more than we usually saw on Independence Day. The Muslim fellows who owned the convenience store sought to reassure every customer that they were also horrified.
I should have been excited about starting my new job, but instead I was worried about friends of friends whose safety I hadn’t been able to confirm. At least two of them had an experience worthy of an action-adventure romance; I remember being overjoyed to find out, days later, that they were indeed safe.
There was anger, fear and uncertainty, yes, but there was love and patriotism, too.
In the days that followed, we attended a worship service where people of all colors, political persuasions and backgrounds held hands, prayed and sang. We hugged and comforted one another. A fellow with whom my late father sparred politically gave me some tissues for my mother’s tears.
A couple of friends in the military suddenly vanished; it was months before we found out they were involved in the first retaliatory strikes against those who had ruined a beautiful September day for millions of Americans, ending the lives of the equivalent of the population of a small American city. I talked to a recruiter who couldn’t keep up, who actually referred applicants to a rival service branch a few doors down. I interviewed him for a story. I knew I was ineligible, and told him so, but he thanked me for caring, anyway.
Friends and neighbors who were first responders – men and women who had taken their special training almost as a lark – headed north to help use the skills they’d learned in classrooms and training fields at home.
There was anger, fear, uncertainty, and wild-flying rumors. There were a few incidents where people got stupid and lashed out at those they felt were somehow responsible, not understanding that that there’s a huge difference between a person of Middle Eastern descent and a radical Muslim terrorist.
But on Sept. 12, and the days afterward, I saw far more of what we should have already been showing to each other.
There was love, there was generosity, there were tears for folks we didn’t even know. People overwhelmed a local blood drive, even though their blood would never be used to help folks in the cities where terrorism was no longer a hypothetical scenario, but a smoking, stinking, crippling reality.
We had broken hearts, yes, but we helped each other heal into something even stronger than we were before.
Somewhere along the line, that disappeared.
The anger that we had for those who had attacked our country turned inward. Much of the love that transcended all barriers seemed to go away. Maybe it was politics, maybe it was due to the rhetoric of power-profiteers and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Maybe we were just tired. Maybe we didn’t want to put forth the effort needed to maintain what we had created, and like an adolescent turning away from a beloved toy, we moved on, uncaring about what we left behind.
That love of country and each other isn’t extinct, of course, but there are times it seems endangered. When the President of the United States says 80 million Americans are more dangerous than the psychopaths that hurt us on 9/11, there is something wrong. When the police who we revered in the days and weeks after the attacks are vilified and ambushed, there is something wrong.
When the destruction of property and businesses is given tacit approval because it occurs during a “peaceful protest,” there is something wrong. When we arm our enemies and abandon our allies in a place where the blood of thousands of young Americans watered the soil, there is something wrong.
When veterans of our country’s longest war can’t get the help they need without giving up their constitutional rights, there is something wrong. When people highjack events designed to create unity and turn them instead into grotesque political parody, there is something wrong.
I still firmly believe there is more right with America than there is wrong, despite the shrill screams of those who seek to increase their power through fomenting hatred of the very country that allows them to dissent, and by extension, through hating those who disagree with them.
I still believe we are the greatest country in the world, as we all did on Sept. 12, 2001. Imperfect, sure, but we are still the best of the best of the best.
I still believe in America and Americans.
I still believe in what we had on Sept. 12, 2001.
I only hope and pray we can regain what we had, without another Sept. 11.