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Don’t forget the lessons of Sept. 11

Robert Winkler/Getty Images American flag hanging on a barn
UNITED: Twenty years after Sept. 11, our nation feels very far from “United we stand.” But a little work on all our parts might get us back there.
It’s 20 years after Sept. 11 and we are far from united, but we can find that spirit again.

Each year, for the last 19 years, I’ve tried to write something to mark my thoughts and feelings on the anniversary of Sept. 11.

I have felt it was my duty, as a journalist, to try to mark the occasion with words for posterity. When events happen, try to make sense, or give comfort, or find actionable lessons for readers.

This year, though, on the 20th anniversary, I see us in a very different place than where we were on that awful day.

20 years

When the towers fell in 2001, I was 23 years old, just starting out in my ag journalism career.

I was numb and scared, and even though we were in Dodge City, Kan., thousands of miles away, there were still local stories to come from the tragedy. I had a co-worker trying to fly home from an international trip, and his flight was one of the thousands that was diverted from U.S. airspace. Friends were working at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

Those early hours, those first days, we didn’t know if there would be additional waves of attacks. What would be next? The power grid? The water supply? The food supply? We just didn’t know, and overnight everything looked like it was vulnerable and a target. We were so naïve.

Loss of innocence

In the last 20 years, we’ve accepted a new normal in the name of security. Airports, feedlots, water treatment plants, food manufacturers — each has undergone extensive planning and training for emergencies. We’ve had tabletop exercises among multiple states to plot pinch points in the livestock chain vulnerable to outside attack, and to figure out who would be put in charge of the mitigation efforts. We have new drills and security measures that I could never explain to my grandparents if they were alive to see them.

And they were alive during the 1960s nuclear crisis.

We lost our innocence for sure. But there was a smidgen of good to come out of the horrible.

United we stand

Do you remember how, in the course of an hour, our nation, red and blue, found a common purpose? “United we stand” was the rallying cry that brought complete strangers to Red Cross blood drives around the nation. “Where were you when the world stopped turning?” Alan Jackson sang. That was practically on an hourly rotation on country music stations.

Young men and women joined police forces, fire departments and every branch of the military — not because of signing bonuses, but out of an overwhelming sense of duty.

We mourned as a nation, and we found purpose in coming together.

But, that was also in 2001, back before the world heard of “social media platforms” or “like and share this post,” and podcasts and the iPhone were just a twinkle in the eye of Steve Jobs. Back then, a lie had to stop and tie its shoes before it traveled the globe. Today, it goes around the globe thousands of times with a click.

We forgot

We swore to “Never forget,” but we did.

In these past 20 years, I have seen neighbors and family members turn against each other over topics big and small. Twenty years ago, those same neighbors once lined up with each other to light candles and pray over 2,977 souls lost to terrorism.

What changed?

We stopped critically thinking and respectfully discussing the issues of the day with those who have different views — whatever those views may be.

To live as an American is not a football game, with a scoreboard and winners and losers. Instead, it’s a very muddy gray area, where sometimes we give up a little for the neighbor next to us, and they give up a little for us. That’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

On the days following Sept. 11, 2001, when we were all numb with grief and anger, we actually lived up to their final words in our Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

With a little work, I believe we can live up to those words again. That would be a good way to mark the day, don’t you think?

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