We are so far removed from 9/11 that it takes a memory prompt to remember that sense of national unity that must have prevailed in the weeks and months after, as we tried to understand the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
There were signs. Candlelight vigils, moments of silence. Wal-Mart sold 116,000 American flags on Sept. 11, 2001, and 250,000 more the next day. We queued up to donate blood. Members of Congress, left and right, literally embraced. Extreme voices, left and right, were shushed by normal allies, at least for a moment.
There was respect and grieving for more than 3,000 people killed that day. The individual acts of heroism on 9/11 and in the aftermath will live forever.
After all the outpouring, all we were left with was ourselves. It’s a little sad, in a way, but not as much as I once thought.
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The rush of patriotism and resolve after 9/11 was America. So, too, was our mobilization against terror that would include war efforts in Afghanistan and then Iraq. So were the knuckleheads who attacked Muslims, for looking too much like terrorists, and Sikhs, for looking too much like Muslims. Or the political hard-liners on both sides who tapped their feet impatiently, eager for a headlong rush back to the partisan trenches.
I hope I’m not bursting your bubble, but does a unified vision in any way comport with your view of America and Americans? Then, now or ever? How is our latest national conversation on (please insert on your favorite topic) going?
Today, we ask, “What happened to that 9/11 unity?” The Associated Press cited the Gallup poll of our national pride, taken annually since 9/11, and found we had retracted to an all-time low. From a high of 70 percent in 2003 who said they were “extremely proud” to be Americans, by June of this year it was down to 52 percent.
Democrats who want to blame George W. Bush can point to a drop to 58 percent by the end of his second term. Republicans pointing a finger at Barack Obama can note steady declines over his two terms, with never a year of improvement.
They are our only post-9/11 presidents. One of them must be at fault, right?
And it’s a bit ironic to ask about unity this year, as we endure one of the most painfully campaigned presidential elections in history.
But if unity seems far away now, how must it have seemed in the months before 9/11, when many had long since invalidated the Bush presidency over the hanging-chad election of 2000? That wasn’t too divisive, was it?
Or the Clinton impeachment era. Or Iran-Contra. Or Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, the 1960s and Vietnam and on and on.
Without taking a side on any of it, can we agree that unity ain’t us? This isn’t a modern construct.
Politically, America today has been short-handed as a 50-50 nation, which is mostly true. I’d peg it more at 40-40, with 20 percent too busy with real life to care or dozing their time away.
Maybe 9/11 was, for a last, fleeting moment, that place we think we remember from days gone by, when a Greatest Generation linked arms to turn back the Nazis or a Silent Generation stood against Cold War communists. Unity and unanimity aren’t necessarily the same. (And if you want a little unity, take heart that roughly 9 in 10 Americans hold Congress in very low esteem.)
If you long for that post-9/11 feeling, consider that it would take an event at least as cataclysmic to stir in us similar patriotic fervor. And recognize that that would last about as long, which is not very.
America was conceived as a place to compete and succeed, to make a life and pursue happiness, to believe as we wish.
So we won’t all run in the same direction, and that’s just fine. In fact, that’s the way it was meant to be.