Former President George W. Bush speaks at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Credit: Gene J. Puskar / AP

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Thinking about the past always casts a light on our present. Two speakers’ reflections on Sept. 11, 2021, one from an ordinary person, the other by a former president, illuminates much about where we are today.

Speaking at the commemoration in Pennsylvania, Gordon Felt, the brother of Flight 93 victim Edward Felt, asked a searing question: “Are we worthy of their sacrifice?”

By forcing it to crash, the passengers of Flight 93 stopped their plane from likely hitting the White House or U.S. Capitol. We should ponder what Americans are willing to do for others today.

Another Shanksville orator, George W. Bush, spoke about the good he saw after Sept. 11 and contrasted it to where Americans are now.

The former president recounted that 20 years ago he saw “millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another.” Bush viewed Americans “reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith [and] reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees.” And Bush observed a rejection of individualism in favor of an “an ethic of service and rise to selfless action.”

Yet now, asserted Bush, there is “growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within.” Domestic violent extremists show the same “disdain for pluralism” as did those who commandeered planes to use as weapons.

To be sure, there is a reasonable case that Bush’s memories are overly romanticized. Yes, Americans helped each other and Bush spoke against anti-Muslim hatred. But Islamophobia emerged also and too much of American political life became structured around whether one supported everything done in the name of fighting terrorism.

Still, Bush’s invocation of an idealized past and Felt’s question are inspiring, providing a model of how we could now act toward each other. That template involves care for others — including those different from ourselves — as well as service, tolerance and sacrifice for the common good.

Yet, when we look at how Americans have handled a deadly disease that has killed hundreds of thousands in our country and upended our economy, too many show an unwillingness to focus on the social good while embracing overweening individualism.

Instead of taking simple steps to control the pandemic, like wearing a mask or getting a vaccine, some not only don’t, but also actively attack those working to move us past this difficult time. In June, threats toward medical and public health professionals became such a big problem that the American Medical Association issued a statement decrying this intimidation. One study found that 61 percent of public health officials have been threatened.

Some use horrrific rhetoric conflating Nazi genocide with a life-preserving shot, or promote conspiracy theories. Sadly, some die from COVID-19 after proclaiming it is a hoax.

There are those who assert their individual choices should trump everything else. It’s as if they missed laws against drunk driving, an activity which doesn’t just harm intoxicated drivers. 

Unvaccinated adults hurt others, whether it’s the child under 12 or an immunocompromised grownup who can’t get vaccinated, or the person who needs an intensive care bed but can’t get one because they’re full of unvaccinated COVID patients. Their actions make it more likely that new variants will emerge that are more fatal and more transmissible and less stopped by current vaccines.

The good news is that Americans strongly back public health measures. Nationally vaccines are about as popular as Christmas trees, pets and Mother Teresa. In Maine, nearly 73 percent of those eligible have been fully vaccinated, a percentage closely tracking support for school vaccinations in a March 2020 vote.

President Joe Biden recently rolled out new policies respecting individuals and protecting the public. Those working for big businesses can either get vaccinated or get tested weekly — by no means nothing near what was done by the heroes of Sept. 11.

Our memorializations of the Sept.11 attacks aren’t just about what happened two decades ago. Rather, they should prompt us to look in the mirror, to care and act for the public good again, and to make ourselves worthy of those who sacrificed so much.

Amy Fried is a political science professor at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.

Amy Fried, Opinion columnist

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...