My seventeen-year-old brother doesn’t remember 9/11 – but it’s a day my country can’t forget. Nor should it. Many “millennials,” myself included, will only have vague memories of the day itself and the outpouring of patriotism that followed. Every year, we are reminded of the men and women that died so needlessly and so courageously – the man in the red bandanna, the first responders, the Brit that led thousands of his employees to safety, Falling Man. Every year, I – along with the rest of the country – am brought to tears by the courage of the American citizens and residents affected by that day, and I take a long, hard look at what patriotism means to me.
And yet, every year – every year – when the calendar turns to September 12, the fog of camaraderie inevitably burns off to expose the hatred beneath. Why? Why, if we applaud and mourn the bravery of those who lost their lives that day, can we not exhibit some of that courage in our own lives? I don’t necessarily mean putting our lives on the line, but smaller acts: of tolerance, of care for one another. Putting aside our rhetoric about how great America is (or isn’t), we all know America has serious problems. Take your pick: failing schools, unemployment, systematic racism, gender discrimination, homophobia and transphobia, bigotry, failed foreign relations, brutal election cycles.
I could go on, but I think anyone reading this can think of some issues of his/her/their own. Some belong in the hands of government, but many belong with us, everyday Americans. The one beautiful thing that came out of the September 11 attacks was a reminder to Americans about their capacity to love one another. Love and courage go together; one requires the other. I cannot find a single case of someone discriminating when helping their fellow man out of a burning building or judging their compatriot as they wept on one another’s shoulders.
That all ended September 12 as confusion and grief curdled into anger and blame, which quickly rotted into full-blown hate towards people of color and Muslims incorrectly deemed responsible. Even the needs of first responders were lost in the political turmoil – not until 2010 were they given the healthcare they required. Fifteen years later, it seems the ugliness has persisted instead of the love, and that makes sense. Ugliness is easier. It’s easier to hold on to your opinions than to change them. It’s easier to judge than understand. 9/11 reminds us of the courage it takes to love our fellow Americans, but as we get further away from the day, it becomes easier to relegate this reminder into one, neat square of the calendar – especially for the young people who have grown up in the dark shadow of the attacks without understanding the light that shone through despite the horror and smoke. And, like the fluid, diverse ideas of “patriotism” or “America,” 9/11 is an event too-often coopted into divisive narratives.
This is my small plea for us not to let that happen, to not forget the legacy or allow it to be swallowed up by politics. Spend September 11 honoring the sacrifices of those who died, and spend September 12, September 13, heck, the whole rest of the year, honoring their legacy. Aim to understand and accept those around you. Purposefully engage in discussion with people with whom you don’t agree or understand. Listen to protestors, don’t lambast them for pointing out our flaws. Welcome those “downtrodden” that America has always prided itself on harboring, whether they be refugees, Muslims, Jews, Christians, gays, lesbians, gender fluid, liberal, conservative, hawks, doves, brown, black, or white.
I don’t care which political party you support, what God you worship (or don’t), your race, who you are or what you’ve done. I don’t want to appeal to any of those things. Instead, I ask you to accept your differences, to understand one another’s hopes and dreams alongside your fears. Don’t write off a youth for his race or his hoodie; don’t discount a woman for her head covering; don’t absolve yourself of your share of blame for society’s ills – we are all responsible. This will be hard. It requires a bravery and an openness and a decency and a deep, human love of the sort we, as a nation, have put aside for far too long.
I know this plea is hopelessly idealistic; in fact, it is the sort of horribly subjective piece I normally eschew. But I have watched too many September 12s come and go while remaining silent. I started writing this thinking of my brother and how, for young people, this day is becoming one like any other – though this piece is not for him. This is for everyone who does remember, a sort of request for us to give this day its proper due, and to allow that singular twenty-four hour period of love and horror to continue inspiring us to be better as individuals and as a nation. It is a reminder that no one “owns” America or American-ness. In this era of anger and fear, I want my brother to see a positive example of patriotism. I want to see it myself.