After 9/11 We Came Together, But Why Have We Forgotten That?

Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. I remember where I was, what I was doing and what happened afterward. How I had heard the rumor from my boss that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I thought a small prop plane had hit, but then I saw an image on CNN.com that has since been burned in my brain: A ball of fire and smoke pouring out of the tall skyscraper.

The horror of that day, the fear and the uncertainty will stay with me for the rest of my life. When I woke up the next day, all planes in the US were grounded, but I heard one fly over our home (a military supply plane) and I froze in fear. I, like millions of other Americans, wanted to do something to help.

I drove to my family’s and waited in line to donate blood to the victims. My family lived in Philadelphia and I had seen on the news that the American Red Cross had asked for blood. I stood in line for hours waiting to give blood and I remember the man in front of me holding a newspaper. Images of people falling and jumping out of the World Trade Center shocked me in their stark black and white frankness. The TV in the corner of the waiting room in which more than a hundred of us stood blared all the facts about what had happened the day before.

When I came home that night with my wife, we watched TV and saw a moment in history that I don’t know if we’ll ever see again in America. People lined the streets applauding the police and firefighters returning from ground zero. Volunteers helped donate food and water to the rescue waters. Even though we had been attacked, we found a way to come together as Americans. We didn’t care about black or white, gay or straight, transgendered or any label. We simply were Americans.

Now we are fifteen years past that moment in time. We’re war weary, went through a global meltdown in the housing industry, have had riots in our streets over the death of black men by cops, and we’re about to enter the final stretch of one of the most decisive elections in our 240-year history.

I love America. I love what our country represents. I love that America is brimming with more diversity, cultural, religious and sexual differences than what I grew up with.

I believe that America is stronger because of our differences.

When I walk the streets of Philadelphia, I see people of all ages, races, religions and cultures. And that is good.

Men drove planes into our towers, the fields of Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon to destroy our country. Their acts hit at the heart of who we are as a people but we fought back by standing up. I wore for months an American pin on my shirt at work, hung our flag on our lawn and time passed. I, along with everyone else, fell back into our normal routine and we forgot about why we had bounded together.

Now we have swung the pendulum the opposite way, far, far away from where we once stood holding hands in memorial services. We yell at each other, fight, kill and are angrier than I have ever seen before.

But what if we take a moment to remember what we went through? How that horrible tragedy that has changed us forever, somehow, made us stronger. We, as a people, are resilient, caring and able to rise up over the hate, the anger and fear.

I often wonder if part of what we are fighting so hard about is desperately trying to hold onto what we perceive is ours, seeing our very lives change in front of us. Like children holding onto a melting ice cream cone, our world has changed. Entire industries (publishing, iron working, coal mining, etc.) are being wiped away and our jobs are disappearing.

The list can go on and on about what is wrong in American, but I think back about what we did after 9/11. We came together. We didn’t point fingers at each other (at least, not at first), but we stood together. The hardest and most frightening thing that I’ve realized over these last years is that in order to thrive, I’ve needed to change.

My job is different as are my skills and I’ve seen my entire world revolt and change around me. I went from being a young boy whose mom divorced, moving in with her parents and being, at times, on welfare, to now being on my own raising my own family and understanding so much better the struggle my mother went through to raise my brother and I.

I have had to change. I, like other Americans who lived through 9/11, needed to make a decision. I remember my wife and I (only a little over a year married) sitting down and making a decision that we wanted to bring a child into the world. Many people had these frank discussions in their households: Would we side on standing up and living our lives or would we cower to fear and the darkness we knew to be coming ahead?

My wife and I chose to change, grow and raise a family here in the United States of America.

There are no easy answers. But I stand firm in believing that America is my most blessed and beautiful home. A place where there is so much opportunity and love and more variety in our people and beliefs that wraps us all together, making us all stronger, better and one.

I pray a simple prayer. I pray that we will remember 9/11 and how we felt the days afterward not to dwell in the past, but as a guide for our future. I love my country. I love our differences. But what I love the most is that no matter how dark and down and out things might be, we rise, as one, to help and support each other.