There is an entire generation of citizens and new voters out there who do not remember the events of September 11, 2001, except as history.
They were small children, or infants, when that day of tragedy struck us. They have grown up in an age when news is instantaneous. Where partisan bickering and vitriol is de rigueur. When even tragedies cannot bring us together as a nation and a people, willing to help one another, but instead only garners more fighting. More division. More hate.
Sometimes it seems like the internet rage machine is the way it's always been. That this tribal, knee jerk autotomic response to any incident of tragedy is natural.
But we should know better.
Especially those of us old enough to remember that terrible day 17 years ago, we should know better and we should remember the way we came together as a nation, regardless of politics, regardless of race, regardless of faith, to comfort and to mourn. And we should lead better and provide a better example.
I won't naively claim that everything was perfect in 2001. That there wasn't reaction to the Al-Qaeda claims of responsibility that then lead to the random targeting of citizens of various Asiatic origins and religious backgrounds by those bitter and angry and ignorant of the folks they focused that rage upon. In some ways, we can't look at the current state of politics without considering the impact of September 11, 2001 on the last two decades of American society.
But for just a minute, let's look back on that day and the way it brought us together as a nation.
On September 11, 2001 I was a young reporter, only 25 years old, still fairly new at a job I love deeply and had been doing for a little over a year. It was a Tuesday, as it is this year. I will never forget that, because I was on my way to cover a Scioto County Commissioners meeting. I did not have a television, at that point in my life eschewing the habit so I could focus more deeply on reading, writing, and practicing music. So I had not been watching the morning news as I got ready for work.
The radio in my car did not work, so I was not hearing any reports as I drove over Morton Hill, toward South Shore and Portsmouth on the opposite side of the river. Instead I listened to music on a discman plugged into the cassette deck of my car with an adapter.
When I stopped in South Shore, at the Super America station, to fill my gas tank, I heard on the radio in a neighboring car that the Pentagon had been bombed. That was the story being reported at the time, before all the facts had come in about hijacked airplanes and terrorists cells. Intrigued, but worried about making it to the meeting on time (I've never been the most punctual of men, a habit that I struggle with to this day) I went inside, paid for the gasoline I'd pumped, and left for the Scioto County Courthouse.
As I came into the courthouse I found it uncharacteristically quiet. Almost abandoned. The normal lobby traffic absent. The conference room the commissioners met in empty.
Finding this all very odd, I made my way to the basement, where the commissioners kept offices, and found them there. The commissioners, two Democrats and one Republican, were huddled together in a small office with a tiny, grainy television bedecked with rabbit ear antennae.
As I remember it, silent tears adorned the cheeks of Commissioners Opal Spears and Tom Reiser, while Commissioner Skip Riffe stood by looking numb, with a grim set to his jaw. I crowded into the room with them and office staff as we watched smoke curling from both burning towers and replays of the collisions, the commentary from anchors nothing more than an incessant background buzz, just before the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. One minute before the 10 a.m. start time of a meeting that would not happen that day.
I'd like to say I clearly remember everything that happened that day. Every detail of the news and the later collapse of the North tower. The exact moment we learned of the self-sacrificing heroes of United Flight 93. But the truth is, the rest of the day became something of a blur. My memories of that morning are crystal clear, and forever seared into my synapses. The rest of the day, though, I believe I walked around in something of a haze, going on auto-pilot as I finished my work day.
Time has also softened my memories of the days that followed. I remember events, though the details are vague and murky. I remember disagreements and discussions about responses and reactions to the event, though not with the ardor I felt in the moment.
What I do recall with utter clarity, though, are the feelings. Mine, and the collective feelings of the nation. I remember folks pulling together across political lines to commiserate and console. I remember the faces of first responders, so covered in soot and ash that you couldn't tell their race, and didn't care.
Because they were Americans, like all the rest of us, and that was the only distinction that mattered. That and the conviction that we would not be cowed. That we would not let this act of cowardice and violence change who we were as a people and a nation and as individuals. That we would fight back against external threats to who we were as a people, in the ways each of us could best.
And that we would stand together before we would be divided and allow ourselves to be brought low. That despite all of our differences of opinion, of religion, of race, of political bend, we were one people.
It's a feeling we could sure use a little more of today.