Let’s not wait for a tragedy to unite us

On Wednesday as we listened to people recall Sept. 11, 2001, we were reminded of how the purpose of terrorism is not primarily to kill people but to paralyze their spirit. That can be accomplished by sowing fear, and also by sowing division.

We remembered how Americans defeated the 9/11 terrorists by not acting fearful and divided. To a large (through imperfect) degree, we were united and held our heads high together.

We heard someone say on a radio program Wednesday that if you worked above a certain floor of the World Trade Center’s twin towers when those planes hit, it didn’t matter which political party you voted for. The same was true if you were a firefighter or police officer at the scene.

Even here, far from Manhattan, people knew they were in the middle of something big, and that they were in it together. It was a good reason to forget about a lot of stuff that, when you think about it, is mostly petty.

It felt good to be united. The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Committee quickly changed the theme for the February 2002 event to “United in the Mountains” — not as festive as the Mardi Gras theme they had previously planned, but more important.

Sales of U.S. flags and flag-related merchandise exploded, but we don’t remember people trying to prove they more patriotic than their neighbors. That wasn’t the point. That happens when patriotism is politicized, not when it arises from the heart as simple pride in one’s national community.

Yes, we remember division, too, such as a (mostly) quiet rise of Islamophobia, despite President George W. Bush’s insistence that these attacks were the work of militant extremists, not ordinary Muslims. Honestly, most Americans didn’t know much about Muslims before then.

There were also disagreements about how our nation should respond in terms of security, surveillance and military actions. While people generally united around airport security, despite the added hassle, they were more divided over the Patriot Act, which let the government peek into our private lives unnoticed.

And some actions most Americans united around didn’t turn out so well. The launch of the war in Afghanistan in 2001 was widely popular, and protests before the 2003 launch of the Iraq war went largely unheeded. It seems strange to think about that now, when the Iraq war is largely seen as an expensive, destabilizing mistake, and our government still can’t extricate our troops from Afghanistan.

These days, Americans are extremely divided, politically. People seem to get along somewhat better here in our small Adirondack towns, but still, it’s noticeably worse than it used to be.

We can blame those who intentionally wedged the rift open wider, such as Russian hackers and many of our own politicians — including our president. But we must also blame ourselves.

We know better.

Political camps have to do with what people think are the best tactics for running the government, but they have nothing to do with how we treat each other. We can be good to each other, listen to each other, respect each other and cheer each other on, regardless of politics.

It’s possible that people might unite in the wake of another attack or catastrophe, but it’s also possible that we wouldn’t. And do we really want to wait for that?

We know what to do.

Don’t wait for some political leader or pundit to tell you what to do. Do it anyway, even if it feels like you’re the only one. (You’re not.) Reach across the divide and look for common ground. Contain politics to their appropriate place, and forget about them when they’re not needed.

Start acting like a united people, not a nation with a paralyzed spirit.

We need each other, and we expect a time will come when we will need each other even more.


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