“America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
President George W. Bush 9.17.2001
A lot can happen and change in fifteen years.
It’s been fifteen years since two planes ripped through the Twin Towers in New York, another slammed into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In a single day the face of our nation changed in ways that went beyond the gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline where the Twin Towers once stood.
Yesterday we again mourned what was lost - social media pages were filled with images and memes commemorating a day in American history that still gives everyone pause. Ask anybody about the date and they will tell you where they were and what it means to them, and then share their experience - as if what happened is somehow about them and not about the people we lost in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
In the days and weeks that followed the events on 9/11, Americans came together in shock and pain, and found comfort in our spirit and collective unity. We mourned with dignity and decency – joined in pain, hurt, loss, and patriotism while determined to be as one….”indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” For the first time since grade school, Americans actually understood what those words meant. We shared a common bond that transcended the inconsequential differences in skin color, language, where we worshipped, and who we chose to love. Political ideology became less important; working together for common goals was all that mattered. We put aside differences and focused on unifying our country and strengthening our ideals. The carefully measured words of our leaders mattered as we embraced ourselves and our values after the attack.
President Bush spoke of Islam and said, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race –out of every race.”
But fifteen years is a long time.
Words like the ones President Bush offered fade and disappear in fifteen years.
The America we live in now is one that is more fragmented than at any time in recent years. Torn apart by differences in skin color and sexual orientation. Distrustful of other religions. Fearful of immigrants seeking a better life than the one left behind in war torn and oppressed countries. Instead of celebrating the election of an African-American to its highest office, we became a nation that questioned whether the president was actually a Christian or even an American. We filled our political stage with candidates adept at name-calling and hate-mongering. The Republican Party that openly embraces fear and loathing, is led by a presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who claims that he saw footage of thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the attack on 9/11, even though that never happened. The same nominee who wants to build a wall on our southern border and with few specifics on how to do it, force all immigrants to go through an "extreme vetting" that would attempt to establish whether applicants' beliefs match US values on gay rights, gender equality and religious freedoms. One of the tenets this nation was founded on (a republic – not a democracy- in case anyone missed that in high school civics class) is freedom for all. We are a land of opportunity and a land that opens its doors to all who need freedom from persecution – there are no qualifiers about that. No gray areas.
As a nation, that’s not what we’re about. Except in the past fifteen years, that’s what we’ve become. So much for values and principles…..
We can’t agree on solutions to any of the problems that face our country. We haven’t fixed our schools. Too many families struggle with poverty, finding meaningful work, and putting food on the table. Inner cities are a mess and our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. We’re spending too much time hollering about Colin Kaepernick and not enough time talking about the issues he is protesting – as if there are only two sides to the debate and choosing one eliminates open discussion of the problems and possible solutions.
The America I value is the one where we start to look beyond our differences and work together. The one where the former President said, “This is a great country. It’s a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth.”
It’s sadly ironic that the people who scream loudest that “we will never forget” are in many ways the same ones who want to “take back our country.” The ones who have forgotten the ties that brought us all together and the promises we made to work together to make this a better nation after the attacks. To regain our values. To stand as one with respect and dignity for each other. The same voices that want to take back our country seem loudest from the people who have divided more than they have unified in the past fifteen years.
What we lost on 9/11 goes deeper than the friends, relatives, neighbors, and strangers in the Towers, four planes, Pennsylvania field, and Pentagon. We lost the vision of what America should be.
Fifteen years. A lot can change in fifteen years. America could have been have been better than what we are now.
We need to be better.