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Never forget. Those words, so often said in connection to the 9/11 attacks, reverberate loudly as the U.S. marks the 21st anniversary of that unforgettable, unfathomable day.
In truth, there is little chance that many Americans would ever forget what we witnessed and experienced 21 years ago. Not the people who survived the horrors at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Not those who lost family members and friends there or in the fields of Pennsylvania. Not the first responders who rushed to help. Not those of us who watched horrified in our homes, classrooms and offices. Not the millions of American military members who served in Afghanistan and Iraq after the attacks.
Each year, we pause to remember the nearly 3,000 lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. There has been no shortage of reflection on the importance of this anniversary and what it means to different people. In that spirit of remembrance, we decided to take a look back at the poignant words of George W. Bush, America’s president on that terrible day.
At this time of remembrance, we repeat his call to return to a better America. Bush spoke last year at a commemoration in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed after passengers attempted to regain control of the plane from hijackers, who, it is believed, planned to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
We aren’t naive to think that the uplifting words of a former president who embroiled America in two controversial wars will somehow bring us back together. But we do believe that, when our country seems torn apart along political divisions, we need to remember that the common good sometimes must trump individualism.
For this reason, the days after Sept. 11, 2001,. offer a roadmap to a comity and common purpose. Bush, in his remarks last year, was an able navigator, guiding us back to a path that led us through the dark days of that September 21 years ago.
“In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people,” he said at the Flight 93 memorial. “When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
We share these fears and lament our inability to disagree, on many topics, without anger, fear and resentment.
Bush reminded us to look back to see how we can come together. His hindsight may be a bit rosier than the reality of 2001, but his observations should leave us hopeful that a better, less divided America is again possible.
“I come without explanations or solutions. I can only tell you what I have seen,” the former president said.
“On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.
“At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know.
“At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome of immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.
“At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.
“This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been — and what we can be again,” Bush said.
As we again recall the horror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, let us also remember the strength, kindess and resolve of the American people.