Joseph Sabino Mistick: We must find our way back to ‘our best’
According to St. Augustine, a nation is a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of their love.
This is historian Jon Meacham’s favorite definition of what America is supposed to be, but he has had some doubts that we are there anymore. As he described it to NPR, our country has not been this divided since the 1850s, in the run-up to the Civil War.
“Right now, we don’t love enough in common,” he said. “And at our best, we, I think, loved the idea of liberty under law, of an American dream in which that dream became a reality because there was an equality of opportunity, a capacity to move forward and that we were all, more or less, in a large, national undertaking together.”
Meacham’s description of “our best” does not sound like the America we live in today, but every year we have the chance to commemorate those common values while mourning a staggering national loss. There are many things worth remembering about 9/11: the deaths of innocents, the horror of blind hatred, the loss of loved ones and the heroism of first responders and average citizens.
But the annual events marking the attacks also give us a chance to revisit the mood of the nation in the weeks and months after the tragedy, a chance to remember those common objects of our love. In those days, we felt like a nation. We did not lose sight of the differences between us, but our focus was on the national values that can hold us together in spite of those differences.
At a grocery store checkout line in Pittsburgh, just two days after the attacks, there was nothing but sadness in the air, and the usual banter about the weather or the price of milk was replaced with silence. For a few days, people were thinking more and talking less, trying to make some sense of the world, taking time to sort out their feelings.
The customer and the clerk had little in common. They were from different neighborhoods, different races and different economic circumstances, and they were lost in their own thoughts. At the end, though, they caught each other’s eyes, and the clerk said softly, “We have to start being nicer to each other.”
And we were nicer to each other for a while. In New York City, for months after the attacks, firefighters were cheered everywhere, police officers were hugged on the streets and even politicians were praised for their leadership. In good ways and bad, we were changed forever, suddenly aware of a national undertaking that overrode our differences without eliminating them.
But what happened next is ugly. By dividing us, some politicians know that they can gain just enough of an edge. They play to irrational fears, making immigrants the enemy in a land of immigrants. They mock the less fortunate, as if happenstance somehow makes them less worthy. All the while, they reward the rich on the backs of poor.
We shared something worth holding onto after 9/11. And we lost it.
We must find it again.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer.
Reach him at email@example.com.