DI Voices | America is void of its post-9/11 unity

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Photo Courtesy Eric Draper/George W. Bush Presidential Library

Standing atop rubble with retired New York City firefighter Bob Beckwith Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, President George W. Bush rallies firefighters and rescue workers during an impromptu speech at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center in New York City. Columnist Dennis Austin argues that America is void of its post 9/11 unity.

By Dennis Austin, Senior Columnist

The anniversary has passed; but what remains are the memories that encapsulated America’s collective consciousness on Sept. 11, 2001.

I was seven years old at the time and remember watching on live television the shock, awe and horror of the Twin Towers collapsing. Even more profound was seeing the images of people falling from these towers to their deaths — a heinous choice of death by fire or death through other means.

I will never personally forget my mother who was concerned about her family. 

My sister worked inside of the Willis Tower, formerly known as Sears Tower, that day and my brother attended a private Catholic high school where his only means of transportation was through the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus and train systems. You can imagine the anxiety our mother had until they returned home safely. 

It’s a bit shocking how fast time has gone by: As the old cliche goes, “it feels as if this happened yesterday.” What’s more shocking is that there is now a generation of Americans who have no recollection of 9/11. It’s emblematic of the changing culture and times, but one thing that was present soon after the tragedy was American unity.

Our country was united in grief and the pursuit of justice for the perpetrators behind this savage act. I’m not here to opine about President George W. Bush’s politics nor foreign policy, as that would be appropriate for another time. I’m here to remark upon my adolescent memories of a president, who helped America heal during a time of uncertainty; a time where we didn’t know if Sept. 11 was a singular event or if that was the beginning of more to come.

George W. Bush was a president who sought to bring this nation together. He did, and more than that, displayed what true love of country looked like.

It’s a far cry from present-day America, where citizens are emboldened by the divisive rhetoric of a former president who helped encourage an act of domestic terrorism. On Jan. 6, nearly 20 years after this nation revered the heroics of law enforcement — which became a target of disdain by rabid Trump supporters — suddenly had its right-wing support vanish as these brave men and women defended our nation from tyrannical actors. 

A contrast indeed where citizens today reject science, peddle anti-vaccination campaigns, engage in racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination — all while calling victimhood against efforts to dispel them. 

We are not that America who stood shoulder to shoulder in the wake of a terrorist event. We have become a nation so enamored and spoiled by the advantages and privileges of being an American citizen and living in the western world that any public health measures to protect us from the dangers of COVID-19 are seen by some as tyranny.

I would imagine that true tyranny would be in other parts of the world where freedom of speech, political opposition and women’s rights are notably absent: Citizens of Afghanistan fearing the return of the Taliban clung to the side of an American aircraft and fell to their deaths on airport runways. Even as this nation endured its struggles, I can’t ever recall a time where citizens in modern America clung to the side of an aircraft to escape.

Death to these individuals was more welcoming than living in a state of tyranny. Of course, I’m not saying America is without its issues, but you would be hard-pressed to find women who worry that they will no longer be able to attend school in this country based on gender.

I, as a gay Black man, do not fear being murdered by my government because of who I choose to love. We have forgotten what true tyranny is to some extent which has clouded our nation’s judgment on what is and isn’t a tyrannical government.

I miss that post 9/11 period, not for any longing of tragedy, but what that place and time represented. It wasn’t about skin color or gender or any other qualifier. It was about being American. 

Unfortunately, that unity wasn’t for long. Discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans occurred — sometimes violently. We endured an economic crisis, two wars which the American public turned their backs against and the election of the first Black president that, while represented a turning point in American history, oftentimes resulted in white supremacy rearing its ugly head. 

Then there was the Donald Trump era. America receded from that time of unity following the attacks, and we’ve never seemed to recapture that essence 20 years on. Maybe soon we will and perhaps it won’t take an act of terrorism for us to realize what it means to be united as one.

Dennis is a senior in LAS.

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