The north face of Two World Trade Center (South Tower) immediately after being struck by United Airlines Flight 175. Credit: Wikipedia.
Sometime in the dark hours after the attack, as the entire world was struggling to make sense of a tragedy that was nearly incomprehensible in its scale, the mother of one of my sister’s students came up to her.
Reaching out her her hand, and mustering up what English she had, the woman looked at my sister with deep sympathy in her eyes and just said, “New York … so sad.”
It was a tiny gesture of humanity from a stranger, but one that still looms so large in its attempt to bridge the distance of language, geography, and culture at a time of great pain.
I was texting with my sister recently about this faraway memory, one that’s threatened to recede, like so much about that horrible day, into the realm of myth.
There were “so many small acts of empathy,” my sister recalled, adding that they took on an extra dose of poignancy because so many who offered them “couldn’t speak English” but found a way to close the gap anyway.
I recall feeling then that, with the entire world in our corner in those weeks after the attacks, we were being presented with an incredible opportunity as a nation, as a planet, to finally move past the petty things that divided us, and walk together into a better future.
Naturally, we blew it. A police action in Afghanistan turned into an abortive, 20-year-long attempt at nation-building that cost trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. A war of choice in Iraq shattered an already fragile nation, and allowed an even more pernicious terror threat to take root.
It was, in all, a uniquely American brand of hubris. We compounded those failures across decades, and across administrations, until they reached their inevitable conclusion in our chaotic exit from Afghanistan last month.
The rest of the world turned its attentions elsewhere.
We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided in so many ways in the years since, from the microtargeting and gerrymandering of brutalist presidential campaigns, to the social media confirmation bias that’s carved us into warring political tribes staring at each other over the trench line.
Those divisions were exacerbated over the last four years to the point that some among us don’t even live in the same reality. The commonly agreed-to set of facts that provided the underpinning to our civil and political debates, has seemingly vanished.
Pandemic denial. Vaccine denial. Mask denial. Climate denial. Pernicious 9/11 trutherism. Birtherism. The odious and cowardly Sandy Hook denialism. QAnon. The myth of the stolen election and the Jan. 6 insurrection.
With the knowledge of a million Libraries of Alexandria at our fingertips, we’ve somehow gotten dumber instead of getting smarter.
Instead of trusting in experts, the know-nothing howl of “Do your research,” echoes across the land. We consider the efficacy of bleach to treat the coronavirus. Some of us wolf down an anti-parasitic intended for horses.
Last April, as the virus was just starting its rampage across the country, I expressed the cautious hope that we wouldn’t squander, as we did after 9/11, another opportunity “to rethink how we do everything,” to finally become the country that we should have become two decades earlier.
More than 650,000 dead Americans later, and amid renewed class tensions, and an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, my faith was shaken to its core.
And this week, as I’ve watched the steady upward track in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, I’ve been filled with the same rage and sense of futility I felt at the start of the pandemic, when the curve of the virus began its relentless climb upward.
Now, of course, more of us are vaccinated. Most of us have sense enough to wear masks. But too many resist both — even though both have been proven to be effective in preventing infection.
After 18 months of trauma and death and disruption, you’d think we’d know better. Too many of us still don’t.
I’ll close by telling you my own 9/11 story.
A few days after the attacks, I was driving over one of the bridges that links Harrisburg to its western suburbs in Cumberland County. I remember thinking then, and still do now, that the whole world had gone quiet. The cars didn’t make a sound as they sped over the bridge. We were all too shattered to even speak above a whisper.
In that silence, I thought, maybe we could listen to each other, that we could finally see what bound us together, instead of what tore us apart. But we didn’t listen. We didn’t see. We squandered the opportunity.
We had the same chance in the great silence of the pandemic. Rifts that not enough of us had recognized were exposed, begging for attention, for healing, and for justice. We’ve made progress. But not enough.
So here’s my prayer on this 20th observance: That we step up and honor our obligation to protect and care for those in the dawn, the twilight, and the shadows of life (to tear from a very famous page). That we turn inward to really listen to each other, without turning our backs on the world. That we emerge from the great silence of the pandemic to finally create a country that’s inclusive and welcoming to all, and one that lives up to its aspirations for real equality for all of us.
That we do it so that, someday, when a stranger on the other side of the planet stretches out their hand, it’s not in sympathy, it’s in solidarity.
This commentary was originally published by the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, an affiliate of the noprofit States Newsroom that includes the Florida Phoenix.
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