9/11 Made Us Better People, for a Moment

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I wasn’t going to write a 9/11 anniversary post. What do I have to add to the millions of words already being written? I won’t do a Where-I-was-and-what-I-was-doing or How-it-changed-me/us-forever piece. Nobody cares, least of all me. Blessedly, I was not in New York that day. Most blessedly of all, I didn’t know anyone who perished.

I used to pass through the Trade Center every day, from the New Jersey PATH commuter train station in the bowels of the complex on my way to work at the Wall Street Journal. If you lived in or around New York, which I did in the late 1990s, you were blasé about the Twin Towers. Wherever you went, there they were. One of the PATH escalators survived the collapse and I believe is now part of the museum there. The Journal’s offices were in a building adjacent to the Trade Center. I often wonder if that building is gone.

I’ll be visiting the Ground Zero memorial this fall, and I’m sure it will be very emotional.

But out of even the most unimaginably horrific and tragic things often come good things, and that’s the subject of this blog. What I like to remember is the aftermath of 9/11. It seemed like, for a brief period in our country beginning September 12, 2001 through the following year, people were a little kinder to each other. A little less about “me, me, me” and more about “us.” Less about winning the rat race and more about cherishing people, especially the people in our own lives.

Egoism and rancor took a holiday and in its place a newfound civility swept the land. We were one in our shock and grief. We were still alive, and trying to find meaning in that. We were 250 million people with survivors’ guilt, in one giant figurative group hug. Not only that, but most of the rest of the world encircled us in their embrace. Cops, for once, were good guys.

There were unfortunate, isolated incidents of ugliness. But I like to think 9/11 brought far more of the good out in people than the bad. Some people cried for revenge; most just wanted justice. Suddenly, as never before or since, it was hip to be patriotic. Remember all the American flags, everywhere you looked?

It didn’t matter what your political affiliation or leanings, that all fell away and no longer mattered. We weren’t Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, black or white, us and them; we were just Americans. Even cynical punk-types got into the patriotic spirit.

I remember thinking: Never again will I complain about stupid stuff, or be petty or selfish. But of course, I went back to doing exactly that. We all did, eventually. We went back to honking at drivers who slow us down on our way to … where?  We went back to flipping people off, sniping about our coworkers, being greedy. Slowly, we began to forget.

Not exactly forget – those images are indelibly burned into our psyches for as long as we live. But we began losing that feeling. I don’t know how much the new distraction of the war in Iraq had to do with it; we’ll never know if absent that, we would have been able to keep it going. But somehow, I don’t think so.

In the wake of 9/11, we Americans were the way we ought to be. We finally “got it” – what really matters in life. We treated each other better, friend and stranger. For a moment in time, we had our priorities straight.  Just imagine if that could have lasted.

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