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20 Years On: Reflections

Friday the high school teacher I was subbing for said we could start class with deep breathing and a sharing circle if the students wanted. They wanted. After the breathing, they explained that for circle they choose a topic and go around, each sharing about it. That morning, September 10th, the principal had led a moment of silence on the PA system for the 9/11 victims. I suggested we each share about 9/11—they agreed.

One girl had lost an uncle. Another had a close call, a relative in the World Trade Center who managed to escape. None of the students had been born yet when it happened. One of them commented on the unity the attacks engendered—my favorite and most powerful memory, which I always emphasized when I taught about 9/11. Another mentioned the disastrous wars that ensued, the U.S. having just left Afghanistan, the Taliban retaking the country almost as if we were never there.

Then I shared my memory. I was teaching a current events class on Middle Eastern terrorism in the classroom where I taught for most of my career. A student, Danielle Doherty, came in and said “Mr. Macijeski, a plane just flew into the World Trade Center!” It was a clear day—how could that happen?

As the day unfolded and the second plane hit the second tower, I immediately thought: Bin Laden. The synchronized attacks were his M.O. Some students and teachers began gathering in our school library to watch coverage on the big screen TV. My reaction was to carry on my lesson plans, in defiance of Bin Laden.

Over the years, I began teaching about the attacks for students who more and more did not personally remember them. After reviewing the facts I would close class with footage of the fundraising concert for the victims telecast live a few days after 9/11. Celebrity icons from Clint Eastwood and Mariah Carey to Paul Simon and Celine Dion spoke and sang, encouraging Americans to contribute and displaying a unity and determination that could palpably be felt. Interwoven among stirring performances were testimonies of the rescue efforts of first responders and ordinary Americans. A Romanian journalist who watched on TV described it as “the heavy artillery of the American soul.” Robert De Niro read FDR’s Four Freedoms, conjuring the unity and courage of World War Two. The concert ended with Willie Nelson leading everyone in “America the Beautiful.” As they watched, I would invite students to write their own reflections on how they felt about 9/11. Varying among horror, outrage, and inspiration at the heroism and unity, all were heartfelt.

In his coverage yesterday honoring 9/11, NBC anchor Lester Holt wondered what had become of that unity. Former President George W. Bush, in remarks at Shanksville, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed after being taken over from the terrorists by its heroic passengers, condemned our recent divisiveness and offered the following:

“In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people. When it comes to the unity of America, those days seems distant from our own. A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together. I come without explanations or solutions. I can only tell you what I have seen. On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know. At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know. At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome of immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know. At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know. This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been – and what we can be again.”

That is also the America I have seen—the America I believe in.

Earlier this week, I covered a current events class on the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. The students were mostly upperclassmen, 17- and 18-year olds. One sturdy young man I at first mistook for an aide—he looked like ex-military—asked many good questions as we watched a Frontline episode about the Taliban. Later as they worked independently, I shared with him about a book I’m reading, Andrew Bacevich’s After the Apocalypse, which examines how America’s post-9/11 efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq went so horribly awry. Bacevich lost a son in Iraq. I’ve yet to finish the book, but it is a damning indictment of the many leaders, military and civilian, of both parties, who got us into those conflicts, at tremendous cost in lives, treasure, reputation—and perhaps even identity. The young man shared my disappointment at the tragic results of those wars—not only for Americans, but for the even greater numbers of Iraqis and Afghanis whose lives were upended or destroyed.

Where did we go wrong? There is much to contemplate, and much has been written. As we did so painfully in Vietnam, we have once again discovered the limits of military power in reshaping the world. The Frontline clip we watched highlighted the hatred among the different ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan and the never-ending revenge killings to which they lead. It brought to mind Gandhi’s famous quote: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

Dr. King, another great non-violent warrior, said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Twenty years ago, darkness came to America. We fought back—a very natural impulse. But perhaps we must learn a better way to fight. Too often in recent years, the world has seen an America divided—by politics, race, money . . . Let us recover the spirit of unity and brotherhood that bonded us all as Americans those days after 9/11—not the spirit of anger and outrage, but of love and sacrifice, of caring for one another. That is what we need to escape from the darkness and find our way back to the light.

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