Twenty Years Later

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[Note: The following is a reprint of the weekend edition of the Braver Angels Newsletter, originally published September 12, 2021. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.]

This is a time of remembering.

It has been twenty years since the towers fell. Twenty years since the Pentagon was attacked. Twenty years since brave Americans rushed the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93, which we believe was to have targeted either the Capitol or the White House.

This is a time of remembering. Yet for twenty years millions of Americans have been born who will have no memory of 9/11.

The America they have grown up in is the America of the War on Terror. It is the America of the financial collapse and the Great Recession. It is the America of Twitter, Facebook and Russian interference.

It is the America that saw the historic election of our first Black president, only to be followed by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter—an America seething with racial pessimism. It is the America of January 6th, COVID-19 and now the historic collapse of 20 years’ worth of American investment in Afghanistan…the very nation we were driven to turn our attention to by the crushing events of that September day.

I remember 9/11. I remember the delayed shock I felt turning on the television, momentarily unable to absorb the fact that I was watching an attack on American soil. I remember seeing the glistening in my teacher’s eyes as I stepped belatedly into my sophomore history class. The vacant stares and the scattered weeping of teenagers all across campus. We would learn that day or the next that one of our schoolmates was on one of those planes.

But I remember something else, too. In the aftermath of 9/11, as first responders tore through the rubble in search of survivors and stories of the heroics of firemen, policemen, medics and ordinary civilians alike began to spread, I remember the American people forgetting their differences. American flags sprouted on cars and lawns like daisies following the rains of spring. Democrat or Republican counted for nothing. We were one nation, and we would face the terror and uncertainty of a hostile future together.

I don’t want to romanticize it too much. Even at that moment, Muslims, Sikhs and Arabs began to find themselves targeted by neighbors who believed them to be in league with our country’s enemies. Zealous patriotism became vengeful jingoism for some. For others the focus was on the sins of U.S. foreign policy, our presumed responsibility for our tragedy, and before long the sense of common purpose we felt going into Afghanistan was replaced by a partisan bitterness that would spill over in the debate that preceded the second war in Iraq.

These things happened, and they could hardly prepare us for the tragedies of American life that were yet to come.

But there is value in the memory of the unity we experienced following that fateful day. The foundation of a republic that lasts is not made up of mere political agreement. It holds firm with our ability to remember that what motivates decent people regardless of our politics is our willingness to care and stand up for one another. This is patriotic empathy, which is part of what I recall when I think back on 9/11.

We cannot rely on catastrophes to unite America, however. 9/11 proves this as surely as COVID-19. We must take it upon ourselves to cultivate our understanding of each other, to know the broad experiences that generate our perspectives on politics, and to thereby be able to reason together across our divides.

The United States has suffered loss before. The American project has been prematurely eulogized a million times by those who fail to see the inner strength of our country. From wars to pandemics to depressions, so long as we as Americans are willing to stand by each other, our country will endure.

But it is true that the battle of our moment is largely internal. Braver Angels is focused on winning the war within, overcoming the passions of our differences to reclaim the better angels of our human nature.

Twenty years later we still have the chance to overcome this legacy of division. Twenty years later we still have the chance to nurture a more perfect union in the hearts of a rising generation. Let them hear the stories of the best of our country. Let them hear the stories of the heroes who served and sacrificed on 9/11. And let them hear, too, of the Americans who reached across our differences in troubled times to stand by each other and to build a house united.

-John Wood Jr.

National Ambassador, Braver Angels

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