Every day on September 11th we engage in a national dialogue about something. What exactly that is depends on who you talk to or what you’re trying to get out of it. We always engage in a dialogue be it our thoughts as a community about the tragic events that took place on that terrible day in 2001, a remembrance of the victims of that heinous attack and an occasional discussion of our current foreign policy and how it fails to measure up to the feeling of unbelievable unity that we had on the day we were attacked. The most tragic aspect of living in a post-9/11 world is that nobody has a clue what living in a post 9/11 world means. We engage in fruitless discussion about where we should attack without giving a single thought to the reason we were attacked on 9/11. Yes, they were fundamentalists bent on our destruction, but never, ever do we say to ourselves: “hey, maybe they’re pissed at us because we’re over in their country killing people for no discernable reason.” Such talk is usually dismissed as unpatriotic as if talking about America’s problems somehow makes you a part of the problem.
Forget the fact that our men and women in uniform are being butchered; those who aren’t killed over there leave for home at the end of their tours wishing they had been if they haven’t already been physically or emotionally maimed in their return to civilian life. We as a nation don’t even know what to say to our troops when they come home. Most cities don’t even give our troops a parade when they come home. We acknowledge their sacrifice in a less meaningful way than we acknowledge a six year old who has finished competing in a track and field practice. The greatest shame of it all however and the biggest reason that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves is that the most horrific day in most of our lifetimes often passes without a single substantive dialogue about who we are as a people and where we should go from here. This is a discussion we should have had when we were first attacked, but instead decided to balk at it because it is thought of as politically toxic to talk about. We don’t know what it means to be an American in a post-9/11 world and the fact that we haven’t figured that out is almost as shameful as the fact that our leaders have refused to lead the discussion on a civic issue which is the one issue that above else they should have to lead on.
I had a teacher who used to love to talk about Israel and Middle Eastern geopolitics. He was the only person I knew that actually attempted to have a discussion about something meaningful on the anniversary of 9/11 and isn’t that what we should be doing? Regardless of your political ideology, most Americans believe 9/11 was an incredibly meaningful day in American history. Shouldn’t we use this day to talk about something that can get us somewhere? We owe it to those who have come before us to at least attempt to live up to their standard. To stand back and not even try isn’t just disgraceful; it’s the epitome of what it means to be un-American. The most cowardly thing that we can do as a nation is push to the back burner the pressing issues that matter to our national identity. Indeed, how can we hope to ever move forward if we refuse to even talk in any meaningful way about our past? We can’t possibly hope to understand the problems of today if we do not understand the problems we faced yesterday. History is the study of progress and we don’t engage in it because progress is always made, but because the potential for human progress exists at every turn. It is those who show up that change the world.
As a culture we have always prided ourselves on the fact that we don’t just come up with big ideas, we embrace them. We look at destiny as manifest and we see our government as that shining city on a hill. Americans don’t shrink from a fight, but that doesn’t always mean that it is prudent to engage. Sometimes our trigger-happy nature leads us to believe in policies that don’t reflect our ideals. That is why I say: let us not engage in the politics of fear and division that plagues our discourse following tragedy, but let us instead use this moment to talk about how we got here, what we’re doing with the moment, but most all, let us talk about why it matters for if we cannot do that, if we cannot attempt to find a better, clearer, more salient sense of purpose from these events then what’s the point in remembering them at all?
America used to be a hopeful nation defined by what it could do and not by what it couldn’t. America used to be a nation where community was more important than individual achievement. Today we are all looking to get ahead and what we’ve forgotten is that individual achievement does not need to separate one from their community; if anything it should strengthen our communal ties. What good is worth accomplishing if there is no one to share it with? The truth is that we all want great things, but we want them for ourselves and not for our neighbors. We no longer look at individual achievement through the lens of opportunity for our community. We don’t see that the great part about being blessed isn’t that we can do something that few others can do, but that we have something that we get to share with the world. Our individual efforts mean nothing if no one recognizes them and our individual efforts are not worth attempting unless we have a world receptive to our ideas and hopeful of their purpose.
What we do in life matters. What we say in life matters. What matters the most in life is doing the things worth doing and saying the things worth saying so that we may have a greater discussion next time around. We may never have a discussion about the events that occurred on September 11, 2001 that is worthy of the sacrifices of those first responders or those troops fighting in harm’s way let alone the three thousand people who lost their lives at the hands of mad men, but what we can do is look around us so that we can see the good in the world and realize that it is not just us that matters, but everyone around us as well. And it isn’t merely those who agree with us that should share in this sentiment, but every one of every political persuasion, every one of every religious belief, and every one of every ethnic background who remembers how it felt to be attacked by a group of people who knew nothing of achievement, nothing of community nor anything of hope. We should remember those who attacked us on that dreadful day. We should remember them not for what they did to us, but for the failed sense of community and the failed sense of purpose that they must have felt in their lives and the greater sense of the promise of tomorrow that was lost by everyone on that tragic day.
Community unites the world not individual fetishisms. Hope leads us onward, not sorrow and despair and a greater sense of purpose unites the world today as we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the most profound attack on the peacetime principles of man since World War. We are united now as we could have never been united before and the legacy of the attack on 9/11 is that whatever challenges may come our way, we as a people will stand up and meet these challenges head on for we are a different people now and we are determined if for no other reason than to make sure this never happens again we will defend ourselves and those who can’t defend themselves from those who know not what they do and from those who cannot fathom the scope of destruction brought about by war or the subtle happiness and joy in life that comes with peace.