“And our flag was still there,” was the line delivered by Julia Roberts, as she choked back tears.
She’s either a better actress than I thought or she was genuinely moved and emotionally shaken than night. Not to take anything away from Ms Roberts’ acting skills, but I actually believe it was the later. For all the performers and celebrities who contributed to the 9/11 telethon, mere days after the attacks, in 2001, you could see that was true.
People were shaken. They were broken. They were moved to action. But most of all …they were scared.
We just – literally yesterday – celebrated (although I think that’s the wrong word) the anniversary of 9/11. There were solemn remembrances and TV specials and social media memes …and yes …even blogs. 9/11 is seared into our collective consciousness as a nation. And it always will be. It is as a part of the American story as the Alamo or Pearl Harbor.
But the day I never forget, is the day after. 9/12. THAT’S the day everything sank in. That’s the day people around the world decided where they stood regarding America. Everywhere in the free world, people flew American flags and cried and grieved along with us. There was an outpouring of support for our nation and our people. The allies of this nation understood all too well – immediately – what was at stake in the human story.
But Americans themselves also went through an identity correction. We went from our frivolous in-fighting and political back-and-forth games to contemplating a larger question that loomed over us …could this nation end? Could America as we know it cease to exist? And if that happens …then what?
That question is the question we should always keep in the back of our minds, when we are rolling our eyes at flag wavers and no-questions-asked patriots, and people who cry every time Lee Greenwood sings his song. We should think about 9/12.
While I watched the aforementioned telethon, I almost snickered at a few of the celebrities. Because I had just seen or heard one or two of them poke fun at America and its people. Chris Rock had likened America to the rich uncle who molested you, in the special he’d put out, weeks earlier. Now, here they were (Chris included), arm in arm, singing God Bless America with all the earnestness of grade-school children. Why? Because they were actually face-to-face with the notion of losing America. And that thought leads you down a horrible trail.
Where else do you go for justice? Where else do you go for freedom to be and do whatever you choose in life? What other country on earth will protect you while you protest it? There are some. But the ones who do, all learned it from one place …America.
When I was writhing in a fever, in a hotel room, in China, one thought kept racing through my mind: If I can just get to America everything will be okay. They’ll fix this. Somebody will fix this. I’ve just got to get to America.
That thought was completely involuntary. But I believe a lot of people around the world think it often. And I know why.
We are in an ongoing war of words in the culture, at the moment, over the idea of standing or not standing for the national anthem. Nike and the NFL and individual athletes are making waves and “starting conversations” about injustices they see in America. Okay …fair enough.
But the next logical question, and the one that keeps the other side so enraged, is simply this: what’s the alternative to America? Where would we go and what would we do, if this nation, its ideals and its protections went away? We actually felt the sting of that answer on 9/12 …and it was terrifying. And isn’t that something worth at least acknowledging before we tear into ourselves?
Look, there are many things we can fix in America. It’s made up of people; human beings. And human beings are flawed creatures …which makes America a flawed place. But it is incumbent on us to at least recognize, on a daily basis, that in the course of human events, the idea that was founded on this continent, two-hundred and forty-one years ago, was a good one; that America has been a force for good in the world; that without this idea and this place, the globe might still be languishing in darkness …literally and figuratively.
9/11 brought us to our knees and shook us to our core. But 9/12 made us reflect on why. And it’s because for the first time in many of our lives, we had to contemplate a world without the United States. And as many atrocities and injustices as our country has lived through, from slavery to interment camps, to segregated water fountains, the thought of a world without this experiment terrified us beyond just the possibility of death. It terrified us for what kind of a world our children and grandchildren might live in. Even if it wasn’t a conscious thought, we wondered what the world might look like in the absence of liberty and justice for all.
And those thoughts brought us together. Those thoughts made us embrace each other …and embrace our nation …in ways we might not have until then.
We are always going to fight amongst ourselves in this country. There was never a time when we didn’t. But there was one day in our history when we collectively recognized something existential about our unique nation. And we honored it without embarrassment, for one brief moment.
We talk about never forgetting 9/11.
But we should also never forget 9/12.
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