It’s been eleven years since the numbers 9/11 became a word. The word nine-eleven stirs memories of loss, love, and courage. In a nation where we are increasingly divided, the word nine-eleven evokes, in me, a memory of unity—a memory of our country united by a horrendous national tragedy.
On September 11, like millions of others, I stood in front of my television and watched the Twin Towers collapse and become dust, smoke, and ash. Then, in a state of shock, I walked out into a bright, sunlit day, got in my car, and drove to my job. At the time, I worked at a small nonprofit organization in downtown San Francisco. As I neared my destination near the Moscone Center, I was aware of an unfamiliar quiet all around me. There was less activity, fewer cars. The normal buzz and high-energy tempo of the city was absent. People seemed to move in slow motion; everything was muffled.
The young man who managed the lot where I parked during the week walked up to me and asked, “Are you okay? Are your people okay?”
Yes, I told him. I asked him, too, if he was all right, if he had family, friends, back East. He told me his family was here, on the West Coast. They were all okay. We were silent for a moment.
“Those poor people,” he said.
It was all either of us could say.
The young man’s name was Perfecto, a name I loved when I first heard it, one I still love to this day. Before 9/11, Perfecto and I had always been cordial, trading light-hearted greetings now and then, or grumbling about the weather—the kind of informal back-and-forth most of us have with those who cross our paths as acquaintances. But that morning in 2001, Perfecto and I were bonded as countrymen, bonded in our humanity. There was no time for the protective façade we normally wear out in the world. We had all been given a terrible reminder that life can be over in a moment; everything can change in an instant. There was no time for anything except to be real with one another.
I found the same sense of commonality and concern wherever I went that day. I experienced a tenderness in people, in the way they spoke—to me, to one another. We were all dazed. We didn’t understand what had happened. We only knew that we were all hurting, and we knew that some of us were hurting in unimaginable ways. Our differences had dissolved—our politics, economic class, race, religion—all that had been stripped away. We were all brothers and sisters beneath the skin, united in grief.
Each of us will remember, in our own way, those who were lost on 9/11. We will remember the sacrifices that were made. We may remember, too, the sense of shared concern and unity of purpose that we demonstrated in the aftermath of the attack—an outpouring of money, time, talent and services that came from every region of the country to help the victims of the 9/11 tragedy.
It is important to honor the memory of 9/11. I believe it is also imperative to re-kindle the feeling of unity that swept through us on that day. United we stand, divided we fall. I want us to stand, to become stronger, to help lift everyone up.
If a sense of shared purpose is what I want to see in my nation, I know it begins with me. I am seeking, in myself, ways to hear—and perhaps understand—the views of those I don’t agree with. It’s difficult, but I remind myself that democracy isn’t easy. In looking toward public figures and to those who have leadership positions, my radar is attuned to intelligence coupled with concern for our common welfare: I am looking for people who are focused on finding solutions. I want to hear from, support, and work with people who are invested in solving our problems and meeting the challenges of a new century, a new global community.
If finding solutions to our common problems is our true priority, then our differences not only become secondary, we might even draw strength from those differences. An array of ideas and possible solutions brought to the table may yield unexpected benefits—just as America has continually drawn strength and creative energy from its diversity.
It is our commonality I am remembering today. On this anniversary of 9/11, I keep with me the memory of simple humanity I experienced in my exchange with a young man named Perfecto. That memory sustains my hopes for, and my belief in, my nation. That memory points me toward tomorrow in America, and renews my quest for a more perfect union.