First there was the shock and horror at the sight of those planes hitting the Twin Towers.
The flames and the smoke and then, throughout the morning, the collapse.
The images of planes plowing into the Pentagon and scorching the earth in Shanksville.
Then came the dread of not knowing when it would end.
Or if it would it end.
Then the news of the hundreds of lives lost. Of the passengers in the planes. The workers in the buildings.
The firefighters and police and other first responders who selflessly rushed into the hell fire and never came out.
That was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when America experienced the first outside attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor, a time well before many of us were even born.
In the days and weeks after 9-11, we tried to come to terms with what happened.
And while the smoke was still drifting over the piles of rubble, we seemed to come to a collective realization.
We didn’t only bear witness to a tragedy. We didn’t only mourn the loss of life. We took it personally.
It wasn’t just an attack on our institutions. It wasn’t just an attack on our country. It was an attack on our democracy. On our way of life.
On what we collectively stood for as Americans.
And in that realization, we came together.
Republican. Democrat. Right. Left. Moderate. Citizen. Non-citizen. It didn’t matter at that point.
We were Americans, damn it. Land of the free. Home of the brave.
And we would face this tragedy together.
We realized, perhaps for the first time in generations, that America stood for something more than ourselves as individuals. More than about getting ahead for our own ends.
It might be difficult for those who didn’t experience it to understand what it was like in the aftermath of the attack, especially given the context of the current state of our nation.
Right now, we are a nation in conflict, and in many cases, chaos.
We are a nation reeling from racial injustice and sharp political division and an overwhelming and deadly health crisis for which there appears to be no end in sight.
Rather than coming together to help one another and to solve our problems, we’ve been driven apart, through an inability and unwillingness to compromise and to respect the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree.
That’s not the America we strive to be.
It’s not the America the September 11 attacks revealed us to be.
If we wish to honor the victims and heroes of September 11 on the 19th anniversary of this tragedy, we could do no less than remember that when everything seems to be coming apart, Americans respond by coming together.