The nineteenth anniversary of 9/11 hit me in a way I did not expect. None of the photos, videos, or stories were new, nor was the depressing darkness that stings every single time I watch the planes crash or the towers fall. But it had been a while since I really thought about that day. It feels so distant now. 9/11 is not something I could ever forget, and yet the pictures in my mind were losing their color. I thought the September attacks would be the most awful moment our country would experience in my lifetime. Until now. The last six months have been worse.
Given the bad news all around us, I saw this year’s 9/11 anniversary with different eyes, and I experienced something unanticipated for my efforts: an overpowering sense of nostalgia. Not for the catastrophic day itself; that would be sick. But for the hours, days, and weeks that came immediately after, when we mourned and rallied together, if just for a short while.
I do not wish to oversell our individual moments, our collective unity, or the soundness of our national response. I am certain my memories are rosier than reality. Misbegotten nostalgia leads to dead ends and bad places. Even in the face of violent terror, our differences and disagreements remained, and other issues and other voices were ignored. In the name of 9/11, we made grave mistakes at home and abroad. That said, it is not perfection or even greatness I now recall or miss. But a semblance of hope and solidarity. As bad as 9/11 was, I don’t remember for a minute ever feeling like it was bigger than us, or that it would tear us apart. Somehow, we would prevail. I long for that feeling again.
By September 11, 2001, I had just graduated college and was newly married. My wife and I made less than $20 per hour combined at our two jobs. At night, I studied for the LSAT. I wish I could say I had some dramatic story about how I first found out about the terrorist attacks. I don’t. No social media, text message, or phone call filled me in, but ESPN’s Tuesday morning Sports Center. I went looking for baseball highlights and got what appeared to be a static image of foggy New York. Hearing something about terrorism from the off-screen commentators, I turned up the volume.
I cannot imagine how much instant information (and misinformation) we would have if 9/11 happened today. But nineteen years ago, the drama built up slowly; the terror, like the shark from Jaws, swimming off screen. It was all so confusing. We dressed and went to work, listening to the radio on the drive. Like most people, we spent much of the day in front of the one or two TV screens that were available at our offices. Social media back then was daytime groups of coworkers and nighttime groups of friends and family huddled together watching the news.
We were all upset and angry. We were also scared. If people were willing to kill themselves to take the lives of innocents who simply had the misfortune of time of place, there did not seem like there was much we could do to protect against the inevitable next attack.
Here in Nevada, the mainstay of our economy—hospitality—took a significant downturn. People did not want to travel, especially by air, or gather in places that might make for a tempting target for mass murder.
Of course I have fond memories of none of that. But sadness and terror were just a small part of the whole experience. There was yearning and bonding, too. My boss had me climb to the roof of our office and drape an American flag down the building’s face. Symbols of Americana were everywhere. Everyday men and women became our heroes. Individual stories of bravery, audacity, and sacrifice captivated us. We scheduled group appointments to give blood. Why? I really don’t know. It just seemed like the thing to do. We also raised money, gathered supplies, and made friends.
Nineteen years later and we are in the midst of another national tragedy — multiple national tragedies actually. Pandemic, economic collapse, civil unrest, natural disasters, riots, death, despair, isolation, and more. On top of everything else, we seem to hate each other at a level not seen since the Civil War. Why has today’s reaction been so different than before? Why do today’s hardships pull us apart rather than push us together? I wish I knew.
The easy answer is to simply blame President Trump. No doubt, another leader may have done things differently. But it is hard for me to believe that the animosity we have, neighbor for neighbor, is tied solely to the people we vote for. There is plenty of blame to go around. Who we elect reflects who we are. If division is what we want, division is what we get. No matter the crisis or threat, we have decided that our greatest enemies are other Americans. It is as if the only thing left from the spirit of 9/11 is the ill-conceived belief that only two camps exist: those with us, and those against.
I doubt my memories represent much more than a small slice of a pretty privileged life. We were mad at each other 20 years ago, too. We weren’t far removed from another presidential impeachment, Bush v. Gore, and homegrown American terrorism. But it seemed like we were also more confident in ourselves and our future, even as the ashes of unspeakable horror still choked the air. I was proud of our early communal response to the chaos and catastrophe of 9/11. I am still proud. Nineteen years from now will we be proud of our response to 2020? We could be, but it is entirely up to us. We alone can fix this.
Daniel H. Stewart is a fifth-generation Nevadan and a partner with Hutchison & Steffen. He was Gov. Brian Sandoval’s general counsel and has represented various GOP elected officials and groups. He recently switched his registration to nonpartisan.