As the smoke cleared from the tragic day of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans everywhere were generally certain about one thing: Our country was suddenly united at a level it hadn't been since World War II.
It was a brutal shock to our system, those towers coming down, the planes hijacked, but one in which we'd emerge from, we were sure, with locked arms ready to take on the globe, to inspire our allies and face down our enemies.
It's a question that has been asked repeatedly this week as we marked 20 years since 9/11: What happened to that unity?
It's been a fast 20 years. In the aftershocks of 9/11, we went to war in Afghanistan, determined to strike at the heart of anti-West terrorism, and to hunt down 9/11 instigator Bin Laden. We eventually managed to do both, but after 20 long years, we have come home leaving a political entity known to back terrorism and crush civil rights, the Taliban, in charge of Afghanistan. With 9/11 fanning flames focused on the Middle East, in 2003, we were back in Iraq, looking for weapons of mass destruction and for Saddam Hussein. We didn't find the former but found the later, hiding in a hole.
Our nation's military, for these past 20 years, has been our strongest engine of unity, performing surgically and effectively, seemingly able to do just about everything it wants â€“ aside from fixing other countries' political messes.
We all know our own country's political story of these last 20 years. The collapse of the towers on 9/11 occurred during President George W. Bush's first year. During the last year of his second term, in 2008, it was the economy that collapsed. The nation fell into its deepest economic recession since the Great Depression. As voters often do, there was a backlash for change. The country's first Black president was elected, a moment championed by many as a testament to how far we've come in the face of our racist past. Yet, the election of Barack Obama also proved divisive, and ushered in an era of hyper partisanship in Washington. Fueled by the advent of the confrontation-spirited Tea Party, which emerged to fight Obama's national health care effort, the Republican Party transitioned to a more hardline conservative entity and was rewarded by gaining positions in Congress and state houses across the land.
But Obama won a second term, beating moderate Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
It was as if the GOP determined, upon Romney's loss, to jettison itself from a moderate platform. In 2015, the GOP found a new champion, an outsider/agitator, Donald Trump, to do what the Contract With America crew in the Clinton era wanted, and the Tea Party demanded: turn politics on its head, to recognize that government was too big, too restrictive and needed reeled in. In 2016, he indeed turned politics on its head by winning the White House, with an in-your-face campaign style and with-me-or-against-me mentality. That style inspired strong support from Republicans and conservatives, rebuilt the GOP, and fueled deep disdain from Democrats and progressives.
So what has toxic national politics wrought? Two impeachments surrounding an insurrection that followed an election that half the country think was tainted — all under the dark cloud of COVID-19, which itself became supremely politically divisive. So, here in 2021, the split in our unity fabric that has been tearing steadily since the early days post-9/11 is now as wide as the Pacific Ocean.
But more than the individual politicians, what has framed our current divisive political atmosphere post 9/11 is the rise of social media and opinion-based TV programming. Opinion have morphed into "facts," allowing both liberals and conservatives to find all the affirmation they need without worrying about the information they should have. The result, more and higher barriers are built daily to further separate us. Nearly everything in life now comes with a binary choice, in either a blue or red box that we are forced to choose from, to side with.
It's easy to get down about the state of our union, its stability. Frankly, if you're pragmatic, it may be difficult to be optimistic about the future of a united United States. The two-party political system that has served our nation generally so well has now largely controlled by the wings of each, generally uncompromising wings that work to pull apart instead of creating bridges to bring us together. Moderates who don't spew hate toward the other party find it hard to win primaries and hence become less important for their parties. Â
Can we find unity, can we build upon it, in this heated (literally) atmosphere?
I read a piece by David Johnson, director of cooperative learning center at the University of Minnesota. He offered clear paths to growing unity: establish more common goals; have a mutual identity; become more aware of our inter-dependency; create complimentary roles for all of us that accentuate our inter-dependency; and encourage greater participation in democracy.
One great way to rebuild our unity is to start a new generation toward that path. How about a strong national service program for young people, one similar to the Peace Corp, but even more ambitious? Potentially every American between, say, the ages of 18 and 24, could be mandated to work at least one year for the good of the nation, either within their own community, in another state, or even outside our borders. Maybe that year could be broken into shorter periods of service in hometowns over those years. Military service, of course, could be one route. What better way to learn about the makeup of our great country, its various cultures and people? We are a country of a million insular elements. Something like mandated national service for a short period would, if nothing else, broadened scopes while addressing vital needs awhile strengthening our bonds as a nation
The cesspool of social media, our overly virtual lives, the decline of community service and involvement all makes growing national unity more difficult. And until we can return some civility and respect to our politics, when the two sides can start viewing each other as patriots that simply have differences of opinion, then it's likely we'll drift further and further apart toward a potential unconscionable conclusion.Â
It's been moving to reflect on 9/11 these past several days. But it's sad to admit that we've allowed America to become so much less united now than it was on not only after 9/11 but on Sept. 10, 2001. This 20th anniversary of the towers coming down is a great time to ponder two questions: Do we want a nation that's more united? If so, what are tangible ways we can make that happen? If not, then let's just keep doing what we're doing.
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