As I drove by the courthouse square in Cookeville, Tenn. and saw the impromptu candlelight vigil that was taking place on the lawn, it struck me that we didn’t have an American flag hanging outside our apartment. And that we should get one.
I was a 22-year-old college student on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I balanced work at a small Cookeville store called Sid’s Home Accents with my studies at Tennessee Tech University. I had been up late the night before, cramming for an exam, and I was still asleep when the first and second planes flew into the Twin Towers.
My wife, who had already been to class that morning, woke me up to say, “We’re being attacked.” I turned on the television just in time to see the second tower’s collapse. Like most Americans, I spent the next several hours glued to the TV. And, then, like many of the rest of you, I went to the store for ammunition.
It seems almost crazy to think about our reactions now, 20 years later. But in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we didn’t know what was going to happen next. Though we probably all had our immediate suspicions that Muslim extremists were behind the attacks, there were reports of planes that were still unaccounted for, plots against top American leaders, and a whole lot of uncertainty. The terrorists had managed to bring down the most iconic buildings in America’s most iconic city. What else might they have planned? How many boots might they have on the ground right here in the American heartland?
I wasn’t alone in my reaction, of course. By the time I got to Walmart that evening, the ammo shelves behind the sporting goods counter were bare.
And when I drove back to Walmart after passing the candlelight vigil on the courthouse lawn, the flag shelf was bare, too. Everyone, it seemed, was making the same two purchases: Ammo and American flags.
That was the start of the outpouring of support and patriotism. On that brilliant September morning in 2001, all of us were New Yorkers, whether we hailed from the north woods of Maine, the Florida coast, or Scott County, Tenn. As the late, great Charlie Daniels used to sing: “We may have done a little bit / Of fightin’ amongst ourselves / But you outside people best leave us alone / Cause we’ll all stick together / And you can take that to the bank / That’s the cowboys and the hippies / And the rebels and the yanks.”
The starkest memory in my mind of the entire 9/11 period isn’t the initial images I saw on TV, or even that candlelight vigil on the courthouse lawn. It was three days later, as I was making the drive back up the Cumberland Plateau for a Friday night football game.
Oneida was playing at Sunbright that night, and I was covering the game for the Independent Herald. I had finally managed to locate an American flag — one of those small handheld flags on a wooden stick — and I taped it to the radio antenna of my VW Jetta. As I drove east on Interstate 40, with Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA blaring on my radio, truckers would honk as I passed them, in response to the tiny flag flying on my car. I saw other drivers had rigged their own flags onto their cars — and, in the weeks ahead, still others would, especially as manufacturers began selling the flags that fasten to your side window like a football team flag. As the sun set over the tiny football stadium at Sunbright that evening where Keith Shannon’s Tigers were preparing to square off against the Jimmy May and Keith Henry-led Indians, the Star Spangled Banner sounded sweeter than it probably ever had before.
If it seems almost crazy to think of the fear and gnawing uncertainty most of us felt in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it seems absolutely surreal to think about the patriotism and unity that exploded forth.
It’s easy to forget now that America had just undergone the unpopular impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the bitterly contested presidential election of 2000 that teetered on the verge of a constitutional crisis for several weeks. For that time, most of us would have agreed that we were bitterly divided as a nation — though we’ve learned in recent years just what it means to be bitterly divided. The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed everything in a heartbeat, and we stood as one — truly one nation, under God, like the pledge that we all rehearsed so many times to start our elementary school days.
It seems surreal that Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — stood together on the capitol steps to sing God Bless America. It seems surreal that when President George W. Bush — who, lest we forget, handled the immediate aftermath of 9/11 with remarkable poise and reassurance — delivered his address to the nation before a joint session of Congress a little more than a week after the attacks, he received a standing ovation from the left side of the aisle as well as the right.
It seems surreal, not because it was unthinkable that it happened, but because of what we’ve become in the 20 years since.
Sept. 11, 2001 was a long time ago. Children not yet born that morning have grown up and graduated high school and are starting families of their own. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, 9/11 wasn’t long ago, at all. How have we fallen so far?
In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans lined up to donate blood, to praise first responders, and to put our love of country on display. Twenty years later, we mock those who wear masks, or those who don’t. We see first responders’ vehicles torched in the street. We can’t wait to proclaim that the President of the United States isn’t our president.
America’s unity in the aftermath of 9/11 was a moment that could not last. And when we lost it, we crashed deeper into the abyss of partisanship than we’d ever been before. And we’ve just kept tumbling since, through the Barack Obama era, and then the Donald Trump era, and now the Joe Biden era.
The divisiveness and hatred we’re experiencing in America isn’t a problem of the left, or a problem of the right. It’s a problem that belongs to all Americans, and has to be owned by all Americans, because it’s a problem that’s being perpetrated just as much by one political movement as the other.
Some time after 9/11, the late Sen. Howard Baker sat down for an interview and he was asked, “Does it ever occur to you that maybe, with all of these mounting problems, we might just not be able to make this gift from the founding fathers survive and endure?”
After thinking for a moment, Baker responded forcefully: “Never!”
In 2021, I’m no longer sure about that. I’m no longer sure America will survive as the world’s greatest democracy for my grandchildren to experience the same way I’ve experienced it. Our greatest enemy is no longer al Qaeda, or Russia, or China, but ourselves. And none of us appear willing to reconcile.
But for a moment, we stood proud and strong, united in our resolve and in our love for country. We stopped concentrating on skin-color, gender, individual wealth and political identity, and concentrated on the one thing that should always unite all of us: We were Americans. We paid a great and tragic price to realize that moment. But it must be to the terrorist masterminds’ everlasting agony that their greatest attempt to drive us to our knees instead caused us to stand tall and proud, hand-in-hand, as one people.
May we rediscover that common bond before it’s eternally too late.