On the morning of September 11, 2001, after battling a stomach bug for a couple days, I finally decided I needed to be in bed and not in my office, so I went home sick. I drove home and plopped down in front of the TV just in time to see the billowing smoke pouring from the Twin Towers.
And from that moment, the TV stayed on. Actually, both TVs – one was tuned to CNN and the other to Fox News.
Those TVs stayed on for three days.
I couldn’t bring myself to turn them off.
Was it that it made the event real?
I don’t think so.
And it more than simply not wanting to miss any breaking news.
It certainly wasn’t because I wanted to see the horror and destruction.
No. It was something larger than that. It was a sense of responsibility – as an American whose country was attacked, it was my responsibility to bear witness.
And I’m sure I wasn’t the only American on September 11, 2001 who couldn’t bring herself to turn off the TV.
As horrifying as the footage was, we all felt a sense of obligation to bear witness.
I know of nobody over the age of thirty who when asked “where were you on 9/11?” answers “I don’t remember.”
We all remember.
We will never forget.
All of us recall with absolute clarity the disbelief, horror, fear, anger, grief and resolve as we sat glued to the TV desperately trying to make sense of what we were watching.
It couldn’t be happening. But it was happening.
It couldn’t be real. But it was real.
In a moment of national tragedy, we feel more keenly what unites us.
And 9/11 united us.
News channels were no longer flogging Chandra Levy’s mysterious disappearance. The petty bickering and partisanship was forgotten.
All of us could easily bridge the political divide because we were all Americans and our nation had been attacked.
President Bush announced a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for noon on Friday, September 14, 2001. Remember that?
I was living in Hillsborough, North Carolina at the time. And I left work shortly before noon and drove to the old courthouse in town. There was a large and growing crowd who came to pray.
At one point, we began singing “God Bless America.” I could barely get the words out, I was weeping so hard. Before we finished singing, I lost it completely and broke into sobs. My legs began to give out under the weight of the overwhelming grief. But before I could collapse, I felt strong arms lifting me from behind. I turned and saw a large man with the rough hands of a farmer holding me up. I looked into his tear-filled eyes and melted into his massive chest and wept as he held me – the strains of “God Bless America” as our soundtrack.
I didn’t know this man. He didn’t know me.
There was no thought of “is he a Democrat or is he a Republican?” Or “is he Liberal or is he Conservative?” Or “does he vote the way I do or not?”
None of that mattered.
In that moment, at that time, we united together as Americans.
This is what I reflect on every September 11.
Not the smoke or the bodies dropping or the buildings collapsing.
Not even the images on that TV that never turned off.
No, what I reflect on is that stranger holding me as we both wept – as we joined together to bear witness.
As Americans, it is what we share, not how we differ, that unites us.
This man and I couldn’t have been more different. But we were united, gaining strength from one another. We shared our grief and, more importantly, we shared our love for this country.
It shouldn’t take a tragedy of the magnitude of September 11th to bring Americans together. And it is a greater tragedy that so many in the country would prefer to divide us – by race, gender, age, politics, income, education – you name it.
Unlike 18 years ago when I couldn’t bring myself to turn off my TV, I don’t even have cable today. But that’s okay with me. In 2019, the very last place I would go in the event of a national tragedy is cable news.
Today, widening the divide between Americans has become the business model of the very same cable news channels we all relied on eighteen years ago to bring us together.
Sure, today they’ll all broadcast something about the 9/11 attacks. And, yes, they’ll probably utter the phrase “Never Forget.” But they have forgotten.
They’ve forgotten that eighteen years ago, they helped unite all Americans together to bear witness.
They’ve forgotten the unity and shared identity all Americans experienced after that horrible day.
The sad truth is that unity is the very thing is our “news” outlets want to forget.
And it’s the one thing all of us should remember.
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