Commentary

3-Minute Civics: Today’s living history

September 23, 2021 5:45 am
The "Tribute in Light" memorial at the World Trade Center

The “Tribute in Light” memorial lights up lower Manhattan near One World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2018, in New York City. The tribute at the site of the World Trade Center towers has been an annual event in New York since March 11, 2002. (Spencer Platt | Getty Images)

On Friday, Sept. 10, at 8:46 a.m., my principal got on the P.A. system and spoke about the 20th anniversary of 9/11. When he was done, we all stood in my classroom and recited the Pledge of Allegiance along with him.

Afterward, I turned to my class, an honors Civics class called “We the People,” and I told them that I also had a few things to say. I spoke about my oldest son, who turned 20 on Sept. 8, and how I held him at three days old and watched as the second plane hit the second tower live on TV. I spoke about how my wife and I asked each other the question, “What kind of world did we just bring a new life into?” I talked about how, for a long time, and really still today, I mentally divide events into before and after 9/11. When I look up a movie to see when it was made, or a book to see when it was written, I check off in my mind whether it was before or after 9/11.

I also spoke to my students about living history compared with the history we can learn about only through documents. There are many of us who are living witnesses to this event, and I told them how important it is for them to take advantage of this opportunity because they can understand it in a deeper way than they can when they must rely only on records and even excellent historians.

As I spoke, there was another idea forming in the back of my mind. I looked back at the flag in my classroom and the idea took more shape. I thought back to 2001 and remembered how the election of 2000 was extremely close and had lingered over the recount in Florida. Although Al Gore eventually conceded, many Democrats still felt the election had been stolen from them (sound familiar?). It is safe to say that the country was pretty divided. However, when George Bush went to New York City on Sept. 14 and said, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you … and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” things changed. At that moment, and for some time after, there was unity. Political divisions were set aside. We were Americans first. We had been attacked. We would stand and fight back together.

When “The Daily Show” returned to the air after 9/11, John Stewart spoke to his audience in the studio and at home at the start of the show. At one point he said, “I wanted to tell you why I grieve but I don’t despair.” He pointed out how it is easy to destroy, but that the remarkable thing was the way we were rebuilding. That the barriers between us were set aside. We were working together and living Martin Luther King’s dream even if it was just temporary. He said, “It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.”

I think Stewart got it right. We were devastated, but there was hope in what had always made our country so great. We were inspired by the 9/11 first responders who risked their lives, and some who gave their lives, trying to help others. We were inspired by people like Pat Tillman, who left a lucrative career in the NFL to enlist in the military to fight for his country and made the ultimate sacrifice for that cause. In the aftermath, we were grieving but inspired by so many. Today, we are again facing a terrible attack. The pandemic, although slower moving and more insidious perhaps is, even so, still an attack. It has killed well over 600,000 Americans.

I believe that in the future, we will reflect on the pandemic just like we are reflecting on 9/11 now. Perhaps in 20 years or so, the students who were in my classroom on Sept. 10 will have the privilege and the burden of recounting to those who are yet to be born what it was like to live through the pandemic.

If so, I do wonder what my students will say.

There are heroes of course this time as well. There are doctors and nurses who continue to find ways to care for as many as they can, even at great personal risk and at times without the proper equipment. There are scientists working hard to find ways to prevent the spread of the virus and find treatments that will work to save those who contract it.

Even so, it’s hard to ignore that today we seem to struggle with small sacrifices for the common good. We even have names such as “Karens” as a shorthand for those who feel entitled rather than self-sacrificing. Moreover, we don’t seem to be as willing to set aside our differences to work together. Vaccination and mask-wearing have become polarizing and politicized.

As we continue to battle this foe, I’m not sure we’ve had our George Bush or John Stewart moments, or at least not enough of them. Given the number of deaths and other health consequences for so many Americans, I think my students will likely remember the grief felt at this time. But have we given them a reason to not despair? Will they remember an America that united to face the enemy? Will they remember the “light,” the “democracy” that can’t be shut down?

We are creating, right now, the living history they will pass on to the next generation. As we continue to fight COVID-19, I hope we can be thoughtful, careful, and giving, and I hope we can do it together.

(Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.) 

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