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The Beauty of 9/11: What We Got Right (and Wrong) in Our Response to Tragedy

9/11 showed us that real change can happen with national unity. Why haven't we taken that lesson to heart?

The towers may have fallen in downtown New York, but we were all attacked. At least that was the consensus in the days and weeks that followed September 11, 2001.

Together, we woke up to the reality that terrorism was a threat. We were a nation galvanized, 300 million people held together by blood donations and slogans and ribbons and heroes. Equal parts scared and determined and monumentally pissed off. And a full decade later, cultural amnesia hasn’t set in. The flurry of tributes, on this and every anniversary prior, prove that “Never Forget” isn’t just a catchy tagline.

The annual remembrances and sentimentality are a reminder that 9/11 ushered in a heightened national consciousness. It forced every American to consider our place in the world—who's with us and against us, and why—and it dictated our biggest government priorities. Today we not only think differently, we do differently. This response is singular.

There are lots of reasons why our collective response to 9/11 stands alone, but with ten years of perspective, it’s worth asking: Why haven’t we taken the lessons learned from this catastrophe and applied them elsewhere? Why don't we remember more often that real change happens when we see ourselves as one nation invested in the same hopeful future?

To get a glimpse of the path not taken, consider another horrific event whose anniversary comes just days before 9/11: Hurricane Katrina.

Of course, these are two distinct incidents with two distinct sets of consequences. One was a calculated attack planned by a group of people we could blame; the other was the dizzying result of a natural disaster combined with decades of neglect. But from a bird’s eye view, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the fallout from Hurricane Katrina are both tragedies that happened on American soil, that were much bigger than the several thousand lives lost, that became prisms through which America’s weaknesses were painfully revealed. Both events called on all Americans to act together to address problems we’d long ignored. But in only one of those cases did we collectively answer the call to action.

In the weeks and months after 9/11, despite the fact that the threat of terrorism was just as regional as hurricane territory, we all worried that our hometown would be the next target. We understood instantly that the attacks were an assault not only on New York City, but on our country’s essence—on capitalism, on secularism (and Christianity), on our arrogance and confidence. Our entire democracy, our leaders told us, was in peril. And we reacted accordingly.

New Orleans’ tragedy, on the other hand, belonged to New Orleans. Think of what would have happened after Katrina if we’d experienced a similar moment of national unity. What if we had launched a War on Poverty with as many resources behind it as the War on Terror? What if we’d had a national conversation about urban blight akin to our dialogue about airport security? What if we’d buckled down and fixed the poorly constructed levies (some of which, six years later, still haven’t been adequately repaired) the way we stepped up building safety?

Not that our response to 9/11 was wholly exemplary. The attack became an excuse for waging war, triggering a cowboy sensibility from a president determined not to be seen as the leader of an “impotent” country. It birthed the Patriot Act, which has been accused not only of taking away our civil liberties, but of being misguided and ineffective. It spurred a wave of unfounded fear of Muslims and Arab-Americans as patriotism veered into jingoism. It led to torture.

But the event also proved how swiftly and effectively our country could unify, and it showed that one rude awakening can have reverberating effect on national character and result in tangible government action. It gave even the most jaded among us a taste of what it felt like to be proud of the United States, and it forced us to take a hard look at what needed to change. Like Katrina, a narrative of historical neglect unfolded after the initial terror of 9/11 subsided. The 9/11 Commission revealed that policies and recommendations had been ignored; national security advisor Richard Clarke had even warned Condoleezza Rice of a possible terrorist attack only a week before. As we scrambled to repair a broken system in the wake of the attacks, in some ways we overreached. But in other ways we got our shit together.

The beautiful thing about 9/11 was that it pushed us to be invested in protecting our pursuit of our greatest aspirations. To our country, watching the pinnacle of wealth and capitalism crumble in front of our eyes was the scariest image of all. It was (and often still is) easier for us to think about protecting an abstract American Dream rather than fixing what’s already broken. But we have a responsibility to do both if we truly believe this dream belongs to everyone. We shouldn’t just expect the poor to be the casualties amid disaster.

Ten years later, “Never Forget” has a valuable, if unintended, resonance. The takeaway from historic tragedies like 9/11, like the Holocaust from which its catchphrase is borrowed, like New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and Haiti after the earthquake and Somalia in the throes of famine, shouldn’t be to brush the pain aside. We should do something we don't do nearly enough: look in the mirror, recover from our own mistakes, and fight like hell to defend what's important to us—all of us.

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