Our Opinion: Sixteen years later, who are we today?


This editorial has been modified to correct the name of the storm that hit Houston.

Until 16 years ago, when terrorists intent on mass murder cut through the clear, blue skies, September 11 was merely one of 365 fixed points on the calendar by which we reckoned our position in time and space. Especially this year, especially now, September 11 seems very much itself a thing in flux, less a date in the ninth month than it is a suggestion of deep uncertainty.

That uncertainty centers on the question of who we are as a nation. Our answer to that question serves as nothing less than our rejoinder to the actions of those madmen on that day 16 years ago.

So who are we?

We're a nation that conducts itself under a code of common decency, correct? That cares for the poor and weak, that welcomes the immigrant, regardless of his or her race, religion, and nationality? We see ourselves in the buoyant faces of all those at the Norman Rockwell Museum who were sworn-in on Saturday as naturalized citizens against the backdrop of the iconic Four Freedoms paintings, correct?

We don't, for instance, tell immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to pack up and leave, right? Who would do such a thing? Not us. We're a nation that fosters beauty, that protects our natural resources, right? And we're not a nation given to boastful threats of nuclear-tipped "fire and fury," either, right? We've seen fire and fury. We'll do everything within our power to never have to suffer or inflict fire and fury ever again. Oh, and please: We're not those haters with the tiki torches in Charlottesville itching for a race war, right?

We're a nation that remembers the promises we made to ourselves in the immediate days and months beginning exactly 16 years ago, while hunkered down at home, silhouettes in the blue glow of the television, watching the replay of those towers going down. Remember those promises? They went something along the lines of: We're not going to get caught up in pettiness any longer. We're going to complain a lot less and love a lot more. We're going to hereby measure ourselves against the actions of the people who died that day — including the 343 firefighters and other emergency responders killed attempting to save others. In a time of uncertain darkness, we will bring light into the world by our actions.

Remember those promises? Remember how we pondered — despite the fact we Americans sometimes drive each other up the wall — what would we be without each other? For instance, what would we be without the men and women willing to go to war while we stayed put? Or the everyday mentors of troubled children? Or the tutors at prisons? Or the parents who adopt? Or of all devotees of the disenfranchised? Or the so called "Cajun Navy," the volunteers with their private boats who descended upon Houston to rescue victims of Hurricane Harvey.

The terrorists who successfully forced planes into buildings 16 years ago may never met people like these. But the terrorists on Flight 93 met people like these, which is why that hijacked plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania, not in the heart of D.C.

Yes, look at us now, look at us still. When decency wins, when love wins, the terrorists lose. This is who we can be.

Mark your calendar.


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