This week 20 years ago, America was paralyzed by fear and grief. Every day felt like Sept. 12, because we woke each morning awaiting another attack. And every day we comforted each other. All of us, even those who didn’t lose a loved one or live anywhere near New York or Washington, felt dread and panic and aching sorrow — together.
As our nation commemorated the 20th anniversary of the worst modern-day tragedy the United States has ever suffered, our trauma had notably grown a new layer. You could see it in the eyes, and hear it in the words, of those who described the despair and shock and pride and rage and selflessness of two decades ago, as if it were last night. They were grappling with the pain of what we are now.
Gordon Felt (pictured), who lost his brother Edward Felt on Flight 93, asked at the Shanksville, Pa., ceremony Saturday, “The question to be considered is: Are we worthy of their sacrifice? Are we worthy? Do we as individuals, communities and as a country conduct ourselves in a manner that would make those that sacrificed so much and fought so hard on September 11 proud of who we’ve become?”
At the same commemoration, President George W. Bush recalled the solidarity, grace and unity we all witnessed in the terrifying hours, days, weeks and months after the attacks. He said that today, a “malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument and every argument into a clash of cultures.” But he reminded us that Americans in 2001 rejected prejudice and religious bigotry and nativism and that young people embraced “an ethic of service” and rose to “selfless action.” This, Bush said, is “the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been, and what we can be again.”
The unspeakable horror that burst through the clearest, brightest morning to forever change our country and our lives, arrived three weeks before I became a mother. When I delivered our twins in early October, I could not have imagined that we could have made it 20 weeks, let alone 20 years, without another attack on our homeland of the scale and skill that al-Qaeda succeeded in executing in 2001. I also could not have imagined that our three children, on this anniversary, would not know the reality of that threat but would instead know our fellow Americans — violent white supremacists — pose the worst terrorist threat to us. Most unfathomable would surely be that this 20th year would begin with a violent insurrection at our nation’s capitol, which was spared attack on Sept. 11, 2001 because of the heroism of Americans who joined together to overcome their terrorist hijackers, leading to the crash of their plane in Shanksville so it could not attack the cradle of American democracy.
As we came together in our mutual anguish and fear and pride at this time in 2001, a global pandemic would — of course — have been unthinkable, but so would mobs of our fellow Americans attacking, and threatening the lives of, school board members, school nurses, election officials and public health officials.
After a year and a half, there is no end in sight to the pandemic. This year alone we have seen flooding rain do things our imagination could never before conjure as one in three Americans suffered through a weather disaster and its aftermath just this summer. Americans are deeply worried, no longer about the terror threat we expected in 2001 to forever consume us, but about how we will adapt to unending cycles of dangerous and costly viruses and natural disasters.
And in that collective anxiety, our divisions have deepened further.
Radical culture warriors in both parties work to tear at our shared values and common purpose. We have a thriving white supremacist movement on the right and, on the left, a speech and thought police that wants to defund the actual police. All of these people, opposing each other, are intolerant and do not represent the majority of us.
If there is any hope for the “truest version of ourselves” that Bush described, we must reignite a civic spirit and recommit to a common good that has no political party. That begins with us, with good works to love thy neighbor, through all the coming storms.
We can be uplifted and inspired by good news of consequence arising from our overlapping crises. As of this month, 75% of Americans have taken at least one shot of the COVID vaccine. That is not only significant in reducing infection, sickness and death, but it means that — wait for it — people are changing their minds. Yes, in 2021, some of us can still be persuaded, and to solve any of our problems we must regain the ability to persuade one another. In addition, after the debacle of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, Americans from all regions, and all political perspectives, are eager to welcome and support Afghan refugees. This embrace was described by the New York Times as “one of the largest mass mobilizations of volunteers since the end of the Vietnam War,” in an account that stated, “There has been so much goodwill that some groups are struggling to handle it.”
In 2021, a patriot is not a partisan but an American who will appreciate our common bonds, and give what they can to alleviate the suffering around us. There are people hurting near you; get off Facebook and donate some food, clothes, money or time to veterans, or refugees or those displaced by natural disaster. Deliver pizzas to a hospital with overrun intensive care units. Sign up to help at a vaccine site, or convince someone hesitating to get a shot. Pause, at regular intervals, to reflect on the millions of Americans who are grieving the loss of 650,000 loved ones to COVID-19, and that many who aren’t grieving are, after 18 months of the pandemic, facing financial, mental and emotional struggles.
Just because it’s unlikely the American people could unite again after a tragedy like 9/11 doesn’t mean we should give up on our country. All of us can work to be better citizens of America. She is still a miracle, and she is worthy of our help.