At 7:30 on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol and led a stunned nation in a National Day of Service and Remembrance.
Tom Daschle, minority leader of the House, promised that Congress would “convene tomorrow, and we will speak with one voice to condemn these attacks, to comfort the victims and their families, to commit our full support to the effort to bring those responsible to justice.”
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said, “When America suffers and when people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a Congress stand united.” He called for a moment of silence.
As the senators and representatives left the Capitol steps, some singly, others with an arm on another’s shoulder, all bearing the weight of the nation, someone began to sing, “God bless America, land that I love.” Everyone stopped. Then our nation’s leaders, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, began to sing, imploring the Almighty to “stand beside her and guide her through the night with the light from above.”
In living rooms and bars and wherever Americans gathered, we sang, heartbroken but defiant.
Did that really happen, or did we just make it up?
Are we still capable of uniting with fellow citizens across lines of political philosophy and party affiliation in a time of national emergency? Or have those differences driven a wedge so deep into the soul of America that tragedy only deepens the division?
Our responses to the twin traumas of our time — the Jan. 6 insurrection and the scourge of COVID-19 — should give us reason for concern.
On 9/11 terrorists flew airliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. According to al-Qaida leaders who were interviewed on Al-Jazeera on the first anniversary, the Capitol was the target of the fourth plane. It did not reach its destination; it was brought down in a field near Shanksville, Pa., by incredibly courageous and truly patriotic passengers.
The 9/11 terrorists would have destroyed the Capitol.
On Jan. 6, Americans, supporters of former President Donald Trump desecrated it.
Those who fouled the halls and offices of Congress and injured 140 law enforcement officers, some seriously, in a futile effort to stop the count of the Electoral College and subvert our democracy are now called “patriots” by some on the far-right, and those who remain in jail awaiting trial are said to be “political prisoners,” a ridiculous claim slammed by Judge Amy Berman Jackson when she sentenced one of the participants in the insurrection: “Patriotism is loyalty to country, loyalty to the Constitution, not loyalty to a head of state. That is the tyranny we rejected on July 4.”
In the winter 2020 our nation was attacked again, this time by a silent enemy that has taken the lives of 200 times as many of our citizens as were taken by the terrorists of 9/11.
But in the years since 9/11 the fabric of our society has been worn thin by bitter partisanship that has infected every facet of American life, from the halls of Congress to meetings of county commissioners and school boards across the country.
“We’re all in this together” rang hollow from the beginning.
Incredibly, writes columnist Michael Gerson, COVID has become the latest front in our culture wars. In August, Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Alabama attended by more than 30,000 supporters, most of whom flaunted their “freedom” not to wear masks.
Trump told his followers that he had been vaccinated and encouraged them to do so as well. OK, “encourage” is a bit strong. He said the right words, but without the requisite sense of urgency. Still, some people in the otherwise adoring crowd booed him. Back-pedaling, he assured them that he respected their right to remain among the unvaccinated.
Radical individualism trumps patriotism and the greater good.
This weekend videos of airliners exploding into the Twin Towers, the buildings crumbling to the ground, and terrified, dust-covered people desperately running away from the tragedy billowing behind them, will be shown again and again. Some of us will refuse to watch, so painful are the memories.
I suggest that you set aside seven minutes and 17 seconds to watch the video of the gathering of an unlikely impromptu chorus on the steps of the Capitol and remember the day when national tragedy did not rip us apart but brought us together, reminding us, wistfully perhaps, that beneath all the rancor we are yet “one nation.”