In the days, weeks and even months after 9/11, America was transformed into something wholly different than we’ve been for most of our time. We became mostly united — aware that at our core, regardless of our many differences, we were Americans, and for that brief time, being American was more important to us than all the other labels and divisions among us.
America has always been the creation of people pulling, struggling, fighting against one another to make something great. We have been forged by compromise from our very founding.
But what has allowed us to be forged in division and continue to grow in strife is a shared notion of desiring an America that is free, strong, brave and exceptional.
Today we seem more divided than ever. The level of rancor is amplified by social media and technology, allowing even the craziest, most insane, most abhorrent ideas to be broadcast louder and shared wider than ever. Saying the quiet part out loud has become an every day — every hour, every minute — occurrence.
There is real danger in this, too. The racists, the socialists, the fascists, the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the ignorant who once toiled quietly in their own bubbles in small cliques are now easily linked to more of their perverted ilk, and their messages screamed from the mountaintops of Big Social Media bring even more low-information recruits.
It is why today’s political middle is made up of yesterday’s ultra conservative and uber liberal, each replaced by a new ultra and uber who no longer are simply labeled fascist or socialist for political expediency but who actually espouse views that are unapologetically opposed to the democratic principles on which our nation was founded.
And large groups of voters are seemingly OK with these ideas.
But America is not yet lost.
For as united as we were in those days, weeks and even months after terrorists attacked America, our divisions soon returned. There was much debate and argument even over how to proceed in how we approached the fight against those who attacked us. The debate over the Iraq war is a clear example.
And there were crazies who did not represent the normal divisions and debate that make us the nation we are — just as there have always been. People hung and burned President George W. Bush in effigy. And as the years rolled on, so did the righteous disagreements and the unhinged disparagements — whether against Bush, Obama, Trump or Biden — just as they have since Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison.
National tragedies have a way of uniting us, whether they be national attacks like those of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor or natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. In those moments of unity, we put aside our differences and focus on being American, on being fellow human beings.
And when we look back on those times — just as we do “the good ol’ days” — we often forget that we have been, at our core, a people struggling with what is the perfect national ideal since our Declaration, Revolution and Constitution. We have always had the lesser angels among us.
So we shouldn’t lose hope when we see the divisions of today. We have overcome them in the past, and we can do so again.