Twenty years ago, an hour after driving through lower Manhattan on my way to work in New Jersey, our world was jolted by a horrific act of terrorism. I didn’t get home that night as all bridges and tunnels were closed on lock down. For me it was temporary. For too many it was permanent. They never made it home at all. In the following days people that we knew were some of those who never made it home. Ever.
“We will never forget”. Certainly, those whose lives ended will never be forgotten, as it should be, regardless of the loss experienced.
But what of us, what else should we never forget? The sense of a country united together by a shared experience, as horrific as it was, was a sobering moment. And it may have only been a moment. The effects of 9/11 rippled unpredictably over the next 20 years. The events in Afghanistan only a few days ago testify to that. Almost 60 years ago, just as I was becoming “socially aware” another horrific event took place. The assignation of “the next generation” of Presidents prompted a similar sense of a country uniting together after a different horrific experience. It too, made ripples for 20 years, and it too took the country in directions not easily predicted. The sobering moments don’t last long, but those ripples do.
Epicurus – “Riches do not exhilarate us so much with their possession as they torment us with their loss.”
Say what you will about the events of Jan 6, 2021 – a peaceful tour and excursion to the Capital or a violent insurrection – but it was performed by folks that seem to have it pretty good and live comfortably. The forgotten of the country, the ones living in cardboard boxes under overpasses, the illegals that wash our dishes, the destitute single mothers living without hope for her kids, the family that just got a $300,000 medical bill for their 3-year-old and now relies on go-fund-me, were not the ones expressing their disappointments that day. Most of the participants seems to be dressed in the latest military fashion and armed with working cell phones and communication devices along with much obligatory hardware. Granted, they probably maxed out their Visa card at the hotels they stayed at after traveling across the country, but such is the price they pay for showing their displeasures of life. The number one issue, of course, was that their main entertainment and ego massager was taken off the air and they were pissed.
Tom Nichols wrote about how the U.S. may, or more pessimistically will, fare in the future. He asks, what happens when we are materially satisfied and not in dire straits? Arguably we are in the best of times now. Can we live with that satisfaction, or will we always demand more? How much is enough? And who do we blame for not having enough? What business would decline to provide more? Will governments stand in our way, or should government be the facilitators for more material satisfaction?
Yes, we of the satisfied class, have much to say about the hardships we must endure. We say it every day when the cost of gasoline goes up a few cents a gallon; when we face the horror of higher electric bills if, God forbid, we must use more expensive generating machinery. No, we will not pay more for anything that we can purchase cheaper, regardless of who made it. Our empathy is displayed when we proudly add 20% to our restaurant bill for those who serve us but have nothing but disdain for those who we don’t see but are equally needy.
The above events are linked because they are who we are. They are worlds apart, but we are one nation. A country that comes together and a country torn apart. The current tribalism is well known and is the major influence for the direction and well-being of the country, which at this point is indeterminate.
What will we never forget of 9/11 or 1963? The feeling of shared experience that set ripples in motion. But, as I wrote above, it was momentary. I would even say, tragically momentary. But in that short moment we had strangers in our thoughts and acted, however fleetingly, in unison. Once the moment passes and whatever was set in motion, for good or bad, persisted. The lesson, I believe, is that the moment cannot be just one moment. Unified coherence is not self-sustaining or self-fulfilling. The ripples that are set in motion cannot be assumed to be inviolate. They need constant attention and direction. Maybe even total dampening. Make no mistake. We cannot be restricted in our actions or thoughts just because at one point in the past it was a unified action. The only justifiable past actions to be followed is if they continue to be supported by unified actions now.
“I Know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the Times.” Thomas Jefferson, 1816.
How is that accomplished? If that unified action was initiated by a shared experience, it gives a hint at what is needed to let that action continue. Does this mean that the horrific experiences need to be continued to justify these ripples of action? I hope not. But the important lesson is that the horrific experience demonstrated that everyone was involved with it. It was that fact that everyone was affected personally; either physically or emotionally. Either through people we knew or the stories we heard. The empathy that was shown is the salient point. That gave the energy to the ripples that radiated from the shared experience.
So, the questions posed by Tom Nichols is if we don’t have these horrific events to energize our unity to propel us forward, what is our fate? And specifically, if we, in our individual lives don’t have that empathy or energy or interest in doing so, what becomes of the nation? Epicurus wrote that the satisfied body fears any lose more than the pleasure of any gain. And worse, if loss is personal and gain is collective, it does not bode well for the nation.
The Founding Fathers of the country had the shared experience of a revolution to draw them into a uniformed action and a new government. Those ripples still exist but can only be sustained by the uniformed actions we undertake today. For the most part, that is through a government that was instituted over 200 years ago. It can only exist and continue if each one of us has the empathy of unity, which is a civic duty, that was shown in 1963 and on 9/11. Our democracy will fail without it. The most distressing comments I hear are “It doesn’t matter who is elected, they’re all crooks…they’re all the same…I am free to do what I like…what happens in Washington doesn’t affect me”. Disagreements will never evaporate, nor should they. But the idea that we can never show unity and that division is unbridgeable will always flourish when we turn our back, and efforts, on the hard work of civic responsibility, forbearance, and tolerance .
Abraham Lincoln touched upon this in 1863, on a battlefield that was another horrific tragedy.
He said “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It is up to We the People to take responsibility for our collective decisions. And that is something we should never forget.