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10 years later: We'll never forget

Commentary

September 11, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Ten years ago, few Americans would have questioned this time-tested axiom. Today, we are not so sure. The unbridled self-confidence suggested by the adage has been damaged.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks spawned stunning acts of heroism and appalling acts of ignorance. We can never forget that firefighters stampeded through the smoke to the upper floors of the doomed buildings without regard for their own lives. We remember the office employee who might have saved himself, but stayed behind so his disabled, wheelchair-bound co-worker would not die alone.

The attacks are popularly described as an act of war, but this is not true. Wars require formality, organization and process. A sect with a twisted worldview whose only skill is to hit when you’re not looking is no more an army than the pirates who raid defenseless ships along the coast of Somalia. In retrospect, we might have elevated this act of cowardice to a warlike status of which it was undeserving.

There was no precedent. Nations had launched sneak attacks on us before, but never a faceless band of rogues answering not to a flag, but to fanaticism. Americans, to our credit, do not behave this way (with a few exceptions and maybe on anonymous message boards.) We do not stand behind trees and throw rocks. We do not believe the correct way to get a point across is to murder civilian husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, and their innocent children. What happened on 9/11 was so cowardly and cruel that, of course, we would have trouble finding the proper response.

But it’s been 10 years now. If someone does you a terrible ill, what’s important isn’t how you react in the heat of the moment, what’s important is how you choose to live the rest of your life. As Americans, we must now get about the business of living the rest of our lives.

The lessons we have already learned show promise for the future. For starters, we honor our police and firefighters and first responders as we never did in the past. And we have learned that those who demonstrated such bravery in Manhattan are all around us, in police departments, in volunteer fire and rescue companies in Smithsburg and Boonsboro and Hancock, and in communities across the land. Suddenly, we understood. Heroes are not rare; heroes walk among us every day.

We have learned that not all heroes wear uniforms. New York City is supposed to be cutthroat and heartless — yet 9/11 brought us tale after tale of bravery carried out by women in high heels and men in suits and ties. We now know that there is a hero in every one of us, just waiting for a chance to show itself. And how many times has this played forward? How many people have been inspired by stories of 9/11 to perform in ways above and beyond what they thought themselves capable?

The aftermath of 9/11 fired individual heroism, but it also unified this nation. An attack on one city is now an attack on every city — 9/11 made brothers of New York ad execs and Alabama dirt farmers. It wasn’t just country music artists who were pointing to the salient fact that we might fight among ourselves, but you try to corner America and we will fight shoulder to shoulder.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have learned to take nothing for granted: Not our health and safety, not our place in the world, not our rights and privileges as Americans. We should certainly know by now that if we fail to work for these ideals — collectively known in the Declaration of Independence as our pursuit of happiness — we risk losing them, as has too often happened to great civilizations throughout history.

In his 1943 painting “Freedom From Fear,” Norman Rockwell depicted a couple tucking their sleepy, carefree children in for the night. As the mother pulls up the sheets over the slumbering tots, the father, his face showing some lines, absently holds a folded newspaper with the words “bombings” and “horror” in the headlines.

It’s always going to be a rough-and-tumble world out there. But we have the power to keep our own house in order by paying fast attention to the notions of justice, freedom and virtue upon which this nation was born. These are the notions that make our nation healthy, and healthy bodies possess greater immunities against attack.

We are not going to defeat terrorism with phone surveillance and metal detectors. We will defeat terrorism by again making this nation one that believes that all men and women, from the most impoverished child to the richest tycoon, are deserving of equal respect.

The attacks of 9/11 seem to have left us with two sets of tools. One set contains anger, selfishness and fear. The second set contains valor, generosity and optimism. We have seen each tool kit employed to a great degree in the past decade. The prospects for this nation going forward depend on which set we, individually and collectively, choose to carry with us into the future.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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