From World Change to Personal Change: In Memory of 9-11

Ed Brenegar

On September 11, 2001, the world dramatically changed for many Americans. It was more than just the terrible tragedy of that day, with its dramatic revelation of the real and perceived threats that terrorists could and can operate in America. A fundamental reorientation of life began taking place on that day for many of us who watched the events transpire. We came to see that something important had been going on for a long time to weaken the fabric of our national life. Yet, on that day, and in the days immediately afterwards, because of those attacks on institutions of American business and military power, many of us started to think a bit differently about who we are and what is important to us. There was a big wave of rethinking rippling through the population right away. Much of it passed more quickly than we ever could have imagined at the time. But some of it has endured. And one lesson in particular still resonates deeply all these years later.

For a long time prior to 9-11, there had been a gradual and subtle decline in the strength of many of the institutions that we unconsciously take for granted will always be there to support us. Whether it was the institutions of government, or church, family, or business, the events of 9-11 caused many people to see for the first time that these basic structures of our life together might not be strong enough to prevent the kind of devastating blow that could come at the hands of a few suicidal fanatics. As a result, people began immediately to feel deeply fearful, insecure, unsure of what they were to think, of how they were to make wise decisions about the future, or what they were to do in response.

This widespread insecurity was quickly reflected in the unsteadiness of the stock market, the folding of businesses, the cancellation of many contracts, and a general pulling back into a defensive posture financially. It was immediately seen reflected in the the visible grief of such popular media icons of the time as Dave Letterman and Dan Rather, who openly and tearfully shared their shock and sorrow with the nation. Everyone then wondered when it would ever be possible to really laugh again without some small, haunting sense of inappropriateness. That worry completely passed, of course, with time, but the underlying worries that it was based on did not.

In many respects, the new millenium and new century began on that day, and it was clear to everyone that the 20th century was over. We all worried what we might be able to see in the days after that national tragedy to still give us the optimism and hope for the future that we had long taken for granted. What could we identify as a direction to take that would enable us to stand tall again as a nation and step positively into the future?

Throughout the past century, and to a certain extent far beyond that, we have depended on various social, governmental, financial and spiritual institutions to sustain us. For all our often boldly asserted independence, we are a highly dependent people, long deferring many responsibilities to those we may have viewed as having the distinctive responsibility or authority to govern and take care of so many of our needs. What we have long failed to realize, I believe, is that the strength of our many fundamental social institutions was built on, and requires, the faith, commitment and ongoing active involvement every day of people like you and me.

I realized this vividly on that terrible day in 2001 as I watched the firemen, police and rescue workers move in mass toward the wreckage of the Word Trade Center. These state and municipal employees were average men and women who loyally worked as public servants. My feelings and thoughts had been dwelling on this long before President Bush told them on the following Friday afternoon that they had made the nation proud. Yes, they had. Even all these years later, we can remember how they gave us all a profound sense of pride because we saw in them what we want to see in ourselves. We saw dignity and strong character in action without political spin or calculated self-interest. The still clear mental image of firemen climbing the stairs as the twin towers collapsed will forever serve as my standard to measure public service as a citizen. What can I give my nation, and my community that even begins to measure up to what they and their families gave that day in service to their fellow citizens?

What I saw in those true public servants was a clear display of honor, character, sacrifice and duty to community as well as to one another. These men and women, and the many thousands of their fellow citizens who afterwards stepped forward to give money, donate blood, collect clothing, and remove rubble were examples of what made our nation's institutions so strong in the first place. The crisis and emotion of the moment revealed what had been lying mostly dormant in the lives of so many of us, a deep character of national pride exhibited in sacrifice and service to others. It is this character that is at the heart of all our great institutions. It is this commitment that has built our large corporations, vast networks of civic and voluntary organizations, beautiful cities, extensive national infrastructure, and expansive organizations of faith. It is likewise the slow diminishment of this character that has weakened all these structures and institutions.

Now, years after the terrorist attack on our nation, I believe we should all be saying still, as many of us were then, "No more will I allow my community and our land to be weakened by my complacency. I will no longer be the passive recipient of the best my country has to offer. I will now pitch in to help, to make a difference, and continue to honor the memory of those whose lives have been taken over the years in the defense of and service to their fellow citizens." The world around us has clearly continued to change since that terrible day. Now, as then, it is our turn to change as well.


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