This time of year, I never know exactly what to do with myself. In the years immediately following the attacks, like so many others, I surrounded myself with close friends in a futile attempt to work through the immense grief, frustration and anger that dwelled deep within me. In shared sorrow, we’d spend each 9/11 watching the towers fall again and again on looped documentaries, reliving a day still vivid in our minds. Together, we struggled. We remembered. We cried.
Today, I only feel numb.
Just a few weeks ago, political infighting nearly brought our nation to its knees as elected officials refused to negotiate on budgetary issues. Democrats chastised Republicans and Republicans criticized Democrats as the national news media turned into reality TV programming. In a time deserving of forthrightness and urgency, political leaders turned to posturing and name-calling. My friends in the military, for the second time this year, worried they might see weeks without pay.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, everything I had ever known splintered into nothing. The innocent 18-year-old boy I was, who had never dreamed such evil existed in the world, woke up to dim realities. In the spirit of unity that swept our country, I left everything I had ever loved, dropped out of my freshman year of college and volunteered for active duty in the Army. Across the country, under the waving colors of Old Glory, an entire generation of Americans, most of whom had known nothing but peace and prosperity for the entirety of their lives, vowed to take up arms in defense of our nation. Our differences melted away in the face of adversity. With a common enemy, we stood united.
Today, as Republicans fault Democrats for excessive government spending, as Democrats blame Republicans for revenue shortages, as people attribute the financial crisis to investment banks, we stand divided. Our sights turn towards each other as we seek to assign responsibility for the current calamities of our country, pointing fingers at anyone with opposing views. Unfortunately, our problems are not solely Republican or Democratic problems. Our problems are American problems.
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I returned to the World Trade Center as a police officer on the NYPD security detail. From the night of the 10th until the memorial service on the 11th, my partner and I worked alongside the United States Secret Service to secure the site for the heroes and their president. As morning came, hundreds of officers, who years earlier responded to the initial calls for help, descended into the void. As the ceremony began, clinging to each other for courage and support, police officers, medics, firemen and the families of the fallen stood together in a common struggle – how to move on following the most dreadful events imaginable.
As a people, we’ve faced trying times before. We fought a revolution against the greatest military power in the world, and then fought them again. We saved the planet from utter chaos — not once, but twice. We built the Transcontinental, put a man on the moon, and asked Gorbachev to tear down a wall. We not only got Hitler, but also Saddam and bin Laden. Time after time, we battled the tough battles for our ideals, our values and our future. And time after time we’ve proven when we work together, when our efforts and focus combine, no obstacle, no naysayer, no force on Earth can stop us. We accomplish our goals. Unfortunately, our current goals seem thinly expressed. Because of this, we fight and bicker and lose all sense of reason. And while we argue among ourselves, demanding that others see our side, we decry the failed promises of politicians and political theater; yet, when we pull back the curtain, who pulls the strings?
This year, I’ll be sharing 9/11 with the undergraduate students of Peking University in Beijing. And when we watch the documentaries chronicling the events of that day, when I tell them about the heroes of the NYPD and FDNY, and when we talk about the incredible courage of the passengers on United 93, I’ll say Americans haven’t really changed much in the last 10 years. We still care deeply about the future of our country and we’re still willing to fight for our ideals. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much infighting now. Either way, we came together through the adversity of 9/11; no doubt, if we revisit the perspective of that day and remind ourselves that we’ve done it before, we can come together again now.
Alex Hawke is a junior in Berkeley College and an Eli Whitney student.