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Leading up to the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, much was written about how America has changed since that horrid day. Many, including columnists in this paper, recalled how Americans came together after Sept. 11, how we seemed more inclined to help others and to be more tolerant of one another (there were, of course, troubling Islamophobic acts).
Many also lamented that this “we’re all in it together” spirit has since vanished. Recently, it has been replaced with anger and protests about requirements to wear masks or get vaccinated, steps aimed at taming the coronavirus pandemic that is now, once again, out of control in parts of the country.
On this Sept. 11, there was another call to return to a better America. This one came from former President George W. Bush as he spoke at a commemoration in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Flight crashed after passengers attempted to regain control of the plane from hijackers, who, it is believed, planned to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
We aren’t naive to think that the uplifting words of a former president who embroiled America in two controversial wars will somehow bring us back together. We aren’t advocating that all Americans think alike or act alike. But we do believe that, when the health — and very lives — of our friends, neighbors, family members and co-workers are at risk, we need to remember that the common good sometimes must trump individualism.
For this reason, the days after Sept. 11 offer a roadmap to a comity and common purpose that we have lost in the intervening 20 years. Bush, in his remarks on Saturday, was an able navigator, guiding us back to a path that led us through the dark days of that September 20 years ago.
“In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people,” he said at the Flight 93 memorial. “When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
We share these fears and lament our inability to disagree, on many topics, without anger, fear and resentment.
Bush did not offer a clear answer to avoid these clashes. Instead, he reminded us to look back 20 years to see how we can come together. His hindsight may be a bit rosier than the reality of 2001, but his observations should leave us hopeful that a better, less divided America is again possible.
“I come without explanations or solutions. I can only tell you what I have seen,” the former president said.
“On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.
“At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know.
“At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome of immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.
“At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.
“This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been — and what we can be again,” Bush said.