BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | SEP 13, 2021
“Let me speak directly to veterans and people in uniform: The cause you pursued at the call of duty is the noblest America has to offer. You have shielded your fellow citizens from danger. You have defended the beliefs of your country and advanced the rights of the downtrodden. You have been the face of hope and mercy in dark places. You have been a force for good in the world. Nothing that has followed — nothing — can tarnish your honor or diminish your accomplishments. To you, and to the honored dead, our country is forever grateful.
“In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people. When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.
“I come without explanations or solutions. I can only tell you what I have seen. On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.
“At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know. At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know. At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.
“This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been — and what we can be again.”
George W. Bush speaking in Shanksville, PA 9/11/21
The commemoration of 9/11 is already fading from memory. It is inevitable in a society in which experiences come and go in nanoseconds, not long enough for us to reflect on them, but some aspects of the attack and its aftermath are worth holding on to.
Former President Bush touched on four of them in the excerpt from his speech above. They stood out among all the somber, tearful ceremonies, the speeches, the patriotism, the media coverage, and even the playing of our national anthem at Buckingham Palace.
The first was heroism.
Twenty years ago ordinary Americans became more than someone special to just their friends and families. They were real people on the front lines who made us proud, made us feel a bit more secure, and reassured us they were real people on the front lines of a catastrophe who made us proud, made us feel a bit more secure, and reassured us that the country with all its weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and imperfections was girded by values, virtues, grit, and character worth admiring and appreciating. The heroism of that day inspired others who signed up for military service, as first–responders, as volunteers for months and years after the attack.
One who reflected the courage of so many others was Todd Beamer, a 37-year-old software salesman, who along with Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, and Tom Burnett were on a flight from Newark to San Francisco when they realized they may be doomed. United Flight 93 had been hijacked and turned toward Washington, presumably on a suicide mission to destroy the White House or the US Capitol. The heroes on board, as we all know, forced that plane down in a Pennsylvania field.
Meanwhile, on the ground, when it was concluded that Flight 93 had indeed been hijacked, Vice President Dick Cheney gave the order to the military to bring it down before it reached its target. That order found its way to Air Force Lt. Heather Penney, a rookie F-16 fighter pilot. There wasn’t enough time to arm their aircraft with missiles or bullets or conduct their checklists so she and Lt. General Marc Sasseville, both serving with the Air National Guard, pointed their jets up into what she described as “the deep, clear blue skies” on what they knew would probably be a suicide mission of their own, flying directly into Flight 93, disabling it with simultaneous strikes to the cockpit and tail. Heading for the rendezvous with heroism, they learned what Todd Beamer and his compatriots had done.
“We have to make a commitment to stability,” Penney said twenty years later. “We have to make a commitment to engaging in that kind of dialogue and remembering that there are things that connect us….What it means to be an American is so much more than the differences that we have between us,” she said. “We need to recommit to understanding before judging…that those connections are more important than our differences…Move beyond ourselves.”
While Lt. Penney was in the air, a young man named Welles Crowther was, according to columnist Peggy Noonan, “a junior associate at an investment bank on the 104th floor of the south tower. He always carried a red bandanna in his pocket. On that day he used the bandanna, which ultimately helped identify him, to cover his nose and mouth from the smoke and soot. And that day as the world exploded …he led people to safety, carried them down to lower floors.” Noonan wrote. “He kept going back for more. … He never came home from the towers that day or the day after, his parents were anguished, hoping against hope.”
There are a lot more stories of heroes like them. They include the legions who stepped up for service in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The second striking reality of our remembrance is that we are still here. There have been no more brazen attacks on our country of that magnitude and consequence in the past twenty years. Nearly 3,000 Americans were lost on 9/11. The loss of life from jihadist attacks since is 107, wrote Daniel Byman in the Wall Street Journal.
The US Government has a new Department of Homeland Security and several new agencies dedicated to protecting the homeland. They don’t always function well, but they have accomplished much. We have better coordination of our intelligence services. We have changed human behavior and changed national priorities. The dangers remain. The US and its allies are still vulnerable. We keep making incredible mistakes and misjudgments, like the surrender of Afghanistan. But we are still here. The sacrifices of our heroes over the past 20 years have not been in vain.
The third striking element, more a thematic, was that of national unity and patriotism. I remember those days, watching live as the second plane flew into the side of the south tower, and then running into the street in downtown Washington to see the smoke billow from the Pentagon. I returned upstairs where to my bewilderment we were host to White House staff who had been evacuated minutes earlier under fears that the White House just blocks away would be attacked. I remember, too, what followed that day, a sense of patriotism, anger, disbelief, and resolve all jumbled up in a panoply of emotions, confusion, and sense of loss.
It was heartening to see the bitter partisanship of the 2000 election dissolve into commonality and unity. Al Gore, who lost to Bush called the victor “my commander in chief.” And in the days and months following the attack, we were all hopeful that the survey researchers were right, that America had changed permanently, that there was reason to hope for American solidarity and a single-minded commitment to American ideals. It was heartening 20 years later to listen to our national leaders, Democrats and Republicans, echo the same call for reunification after so many years of sliding with other politicians down a slippery slope of incivility and extremism. It is heartening to know that so many still want and hope for American solidarity, national pride, and common purpose. As President Bush said, it isn’t nostalgia. It is really who most of us are and what we want our country to be.
Unfortunately, to millions, that is a lot of hyperbolic hot air.
And that is the fourth striking and sad reality of the anniversary, sensing that our better angels are already departing for parts unknown. The atmosphere that prevailed before the commemoration and soon after is like a hollowing out of our humanity toward one another, a loss of our national identity. Before the country can even take a breath, we are back to a public life wallowing in divisiveness, partisan rancor, self-righteous eccentricity, and surreal absurdity.
Here are a few snippets of that reality:
A college student in St. Louis pulled up 2,977 commemorative American flags at a 9/11 memorial in protest. Of what? Why? What’s the point? Here is what he had to say:
“Islamophobic hate crimes” the US invasion of “countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, and over 900,000 people have been killed… 37 million people have been displaced…. Any memorial of 9/11 that does not contend with these facts is not only incomplete, but it also amplifies pro-imperialist sentiment and actively disrespects those who have died because of American Invasion. A memorial which uses US flags is especially insidious, as it does not recognize those who have fallen, but uses a symbol that was on the shoulders of those who are responsible for the deaths of 900,000 people, and uses the innocent lives lost during 9/11 as a political prop upholding American hegemony”.
A Syracuse University Professor Jenn M. Jackson who teaches gender and African American studies and is a Washington Post contributor was repulsed by the commemoration. Here is what she wrote:
“We have to be more honest about what 9/11 was and what it wasn’t. It was an attack on the heteropatriarchal capitalistic systems that America relies upon to wrangle other countries to passivity. It was an attack on the systems many white Americans fight to protect.”
A Washington state school canceled a 9/11 tribute because coordinating the wearing of red, white, and blue would be racially insensitive.
And then there was former President Donald Trump who issued brief statements, mostly criticizing President Biden, and visited police and fire stations in New York before doing commentary for a pay-TV boxing match that night. Not a real inspiration or a model of unifying leadership.
The Associated Press led a story last week on television coverage of the attack with the jaw-dropping quotation from an author of a book about 9/11opining that the TV anchors covering the story that day were “… the closest thing that America had to national leaders on 9/11…They were the moral authority for the country on that first day…at a moment its political leadership was largely silent and largely absent from the conversation.” CNN’s Brian Stelter, the icon of media self-absorption and adoration, tweeted the story and added, “political leaders were in bunkers or otherwise out of sight.” Really, Brian?
American leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, preachers, police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and laborers all provided incredible leadership that day, dealing with crisis conditions few in our nation have ever faced. Bush was on national television that night. The three anchors Stelter elevated to sainthood did well in their professional capacities, but so did hundreds of other journalists and technicians on the streets of New York and Washington and in the studios of the morning shows and the newsrooms of America’s newspapers. Like the coaches say after a great game, it was a team effort. They were doing their jobs, Brian. Do yours.
Very soon, now the nation will be displaying again its divisions, hateful emotions, and inability to meet the challenges of crime, illegal immigration, environmental crises, the pandemic, cybersecurity, and more terrorism. The name-calling, character assaults, the blame games, the bigotry, and the other nefarious hallmarks of our politics and social behavior will replace the photos and features of 9/11 and a once-great nation lifting itself up from its knees to stand tall. It will be a whiplashing return to the rancor we all dread.
Would another catastrophic event like 9/11 unite the country today, when people are so quick to divide the country into only victims and villains, when there is only one right and no middle ground, when too many of our institutions are no longer invested in national unity or common purpose or tolerance or benefit of the doubt? Let’s pray—is it still okay to pray? —we never find out.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.