One of our candidates this election season is running on the mantra ‘Make America Great Again.’ I personally think America has been pretty darn great for a long time. Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs. It’s been a march to a slow beat for racial, gender and sexual equality, but we’re getting there. Democracy isn’t meant for radical change. It’s a hard road. The merging of disparate ideas and ideologies of over 300 million people can’t be easy.
But it also shouldn’t be this hard. Or this bloody.
That same candidate (full disclosure: I’m not voting for him) was asked to recall a time when America WAS great. His answer was typical and myopic and trite. Again, I think America has been pretty darn great all along, but I can give you a very specific answer to when America showed its greatness to all the world.
September 11, 2001.
As with everyone else, that day for me started out like any other day. I heard about the first plane from Melissa, my then-girlfriend-now-wife while I was walking to work.
“A plane hit the World Trade Center!”
My first thought was a little prop plane, a four-seater, something like that. I quickened my pace and joined Melissa and the rest of our co-workers in the bowels of our company, watching the only monitor in the building wired for cable. It was no prop plane; that was obvious from the hole in the side of the building and the smoke billowing skyward.
My workday wouldn’t rest, so I settled into my desk and got started. Some time went by and Melissa burst through the door. “Another plane hit the other tower!”
I remember the thirty or so of us crowded around the monitor, sitting on the floor and leaning wherever we could find space, in solemn silence. An occasional “my God” or “holy shit.” Some talk of us being attacked. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania. Then the first Tower fell and the shrieks and the sobbing began. The next few hours were a blur, lived through communal tears.
One of the icons of my youth, Fred Rogers, once said that when you’re afraid, look for the helpers. Well, on September 11, there were helpers. First responders, firemen, police, and paramedics ran INTO the buildings. They ascended the stairs TOWARDS the flames. They saved countless lives with courageous disregard for their own.
And many… no MOST… were lost.
Their bravery in the face of unspeakable horror was the first sign of American Greatness.
Like the rest of the country, I was riveted to my television for the rest of the days to follow, watching an endless stream of stories of the fallen and the missing, needing the moments of survival and heroism to assuage the hurt:
• The other first responders from neighboring towns and states descending on New York to help.
• The workers at Ground Zero digging and hoping to find more survivors, with little regard for their own health.
• The tributes and moments of silence as the days and weeks moved on.
Mostly I remember the feelings of unity. We hurt TOGETHER. We mourned TOGETHER. And eventually, we moved on. TOGETHER.
More American Greatness.
In the subsequent years, those feelings of unity were perverted into the war in Iraq. The military industrial complex used our grief as a profit center that’s been ringing the cash register for them for fifteen years. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided by the powers that be. That feeling of TOGETHER has been replaced by Us versus Them and Mine versus Yours.
And yet, more stories of the heroes of September 11 continued to trickle out during the anniversaries and remembrances commemorating that fateful day. The story of Welles Crowther, the Man with the Red Bandana, which I heard years after the fact, still brings me to tears, with sadness for his family and those he left behind. But it also fills me with PRIDE, for his selflessness and bravery in the face of impending doom.
Welles’ courage serves as a beacon for me on this fifteenth anniversary, to fight the sadness, fight the tears, and remember the UNITY and TOGETHERNESS that rose in the aftermath of the biggest milestone event of my lifetime.
WE got knocked down. But WE got back up.
That is American Greatness.