“You have come to visit our country, sir, at a season of great commercial distress,” said the major.
“At an alarming crisis,” said the colonel.
“At a period of unprecedented stagnation,” said Mr. Jefferson Brick.
“I am sorry to hear that,” returned Martin. ”It’s not likely to last, I hope?”
Martin knew nothing about America, or he would have known perfectly well that if its individual citizens, to a man, are to be believed, it always IS depressed, and always IS stagnated, and always IS at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise; though as a body they are ready to make oath upon the Evangelists at any hour of the day or night, that it is the most thriving and prosperous of all countries on the habitable globe.”
(Referenced by Kim Ghattas in The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut To The Heart of American Power [BOOK•KINDLE], available March 5th)
(Originally posted in AND Magazine, September 11, 2011)
This week, we remember.
We remember where we were when we heard about the first plane hitting the tower. We remember what we thought as the news just began to trickle in. We remember our horror as we watched the second plane hit the other tower. We remember the evacuations — people running out of our monuments, our centers of government and finance, and spilling out on to the streets of our nation’s capital. We remember the dust and debris chasing thousands of New Yorkers through the streets of our most iconic city. We remember the smoke rising from the Pentagon. We remember that impact site in Pennsylvania. We remember watching the towers fall.
We remember the fear, the chaos, the sadness, and the feeling of not knowing what was happening or when it would end. We remember a feeling that Americans were not used to experiencing up to September 11, 2001: helplessness — the feeling of being attacked. We remember that the weather was perfect throughout almost the entire country that morning. We remember that we don’t remember what it felt like on September 10.
Do you remember pointing fingers? Do you remember placing blame? Do you remember partisanship? I remember patriotism. I remember flags and candles and donating water and giving blood and having a new appreciation for police officers and firefighters. I remember that I wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican. I remember that I was an American. I remember that we were all Americans. I remember that we cared a little bit more about each other for at least a couple of weeks.
When Democrat Lyndon Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader and Republican Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States, LBJ — one of the most intense, passionate political animals in our history — never attacked President Eisenhower. It wasn’t because LBJ agreed with Eisenhower’s policies. It wasn’t because LBJ was scared. It was because, as LBJ explained in 1953 in a comment that has an unfortunately haunting connection to 9/11, “If you’re in an airplane, and you’re flying somewhere, you don’t run up to the cockpit and attack the pilot. Mr. Eisenhower is the only President we’ve got.”
The only President we’ve got.
We all want to head in the same direction. We all want to move forward. We all want to progress and be happy and healthy and taken care of. Why does partisan politics trump nationalism? As World War I and World War II approached and the world realized that we are clearly connected on a global level, the people who seemed the most out-of-touch — the people who were wrong — were the isolationists. In both of those great wars, the isolationists were proven wrong. Yet, in the span of our grandparents’ lives, we have regressed to the point where most Americans have become individual isolationists — not isolationism on a national level, but on a personal level. We’ve tried to disconnect from the people in our own country. Don’t you remember how powerful it felt after 9/11 to be united? Don’t you remember how we helped each other in so many different ways?
I guess I could try to be cynical. It’s my natural state anyway. I guess I could remember the look on President George W. Bush’s face when his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, whispered news of the attacks in the President’s ear as he sat in a Florida classroom. I guess I could remember My Pet Goat, and the fact that Bush didn’t get up, sprint from the room, and change out of his Clark Kent clothes into the Superman suit. I guess I could remember Air Force One zig-zagging across the country, the only flight in the air besides military escorts and combat air patrols over our major cities. I guess I could remember the surveillance videos of the well-dressed hijackers walking through the airport terminals that morning before they turned our planes into weapons. I guess I could remember that the passengers of Flight 93 didn’t actually get through the cockpit door and force the plane to crash into Pennsylvania. I guess I could remember our government’s alphabet agencies — the FBI, CIA, NSA, and everyone else listening in on our world — being unable to work together and stop this attack from happening in the first place. I guess I could choose to remember those things, but that doesn’t make me feel better. It doesn’t make 9/11 anything but a success to those who tried to frighten and frustrate and intimidate us through terrorism.
This is what I choose to remember:
I remember that the passengers of Flight 93 tried. I remember that their plane didn’t make it to Washington, and even if they didn’t get into the cockpit and crash the plane into that meadow in Pennsylvania themselves, they certainly fought back and forced the hijackers to abort the mission that they had planned. That plane didn’t crash into the White House or the Capitol, and that’s not because the hijackers got lost.
I remember driving to the wedding rehearsal for two of my best friends on the Friday after the attacks, feeling bad that they were getting married in the shadow of 9/11. I remember being amazed at thousands of people in the streets of Sacramento — thousands of miles away from any of the attack sites — holding a candlelight vigil. I remember that I drove through the silence of these peaceful vigils, with flags and flames and tears all around me, and I thought, “We’re going to be okay.”
I remember George W. Bush — a President I never voted for. I remember his unsteady first comments to the press after the attacks. I remember how he found his footing quickly. I remember him returning to Washington, D.C. that night, against the wishes of his government and his Secret Service. I remember how this President — a President I didn’t agree with, a President I never cast a supportive ballot for or whose campaign I ever donated a cent to, a President whose beliefs were diametrically opposed to almost everything that I believe in — went to Ground Zero and met with the families of those who were dead or missing, and gave them all the time they needed with him.
I remember how that President visited the rescue workers at Ground Zero. I remember, more than anything else, how President Bush climbed on to some of the rubble of the fallen towers, grabbed a bullhorn and began to speak, but was interrupted by the workers yelling, “We can’t hear you!”
I remember that the President — the only President we had at the time — shouted to these exhausted, weary, heroic rescuers, “Well, I can hear you! And the people who knocked these buildings down are gonna hear from all of us soon!”. I remember that it was genuine, that there was nothing manufactured about that moment, and that, despite all of his faults and deficiencies, George W. Bush said exactly what those people — our people — needed to hear. As the workers chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”, I remember thinking — I didn’t vote for him and I won’t vote for him in 2004, but that’s my President and I am proud of him.
As we look back, we can’t help but think about everything else that has come out of 9/11 — the interminable war in Afghanistan, the ridiculous war in Iraq, the humiliating and annoying experience that flying in an airplane has become in this country — but I think about that stuff pretty much every day, and I feel like thinking differently this weekend.
So, I’m going to think about those flags and candles and President Bush on top of the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn. I’m going to think about being an American — just like I was in the weeks following 9/11 — rather than being a Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, Believer or Non-Believer, Straight or Gay, White or Black or Hispanic or Asian, or any other label that we place on ourselves to show that we’re different or more than just human.
I’m going to remember thinking, “That’s my President”, as he spoke to the rescue workers, just as I did a few weeks later when President Bush went to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 of the World Series, strapped on a bulky bulletproof vest under his FDNY sweatshirt, walked to the pitcher’s mound, and with millions of Americans watching on television, with thousands of rabid New Yorkers watching in the stands, and with Derek Jeter’s words (“Don’t bounce it or they’ll boo you.”) rattling around in his head, threw a perfect strike.
I’ll remember thinking, “That’s my President”, about a guy I never voted for and didn’t agree with, and I’ll hope that you do that when the guy you didn’t vote for and didn’t agree with says the right words, does the right things, and throws a strike — not because you’re a Democrat or a Republican, but because you’re an American and that’s the only President we’ve got.
What do you remember?