Charles Lane: We Expected The War On Terror To Unite Us. What Went Wrong

“We once stood united. What went wrong?” said the headline staring at me from my email box Tuesday. The smaller one under it made the piece even more alluring: “Americans have forgotten why we put aside our differences 17 years ago.”

I couldn’t get at the story, one by Charles Lane in the Washington Post. When I clicked the link I was advised I needed to pay a dollar that I didn’t feel like paying. But the headlines got at me.

Given Tuesday’s date, the words written in bold italics surely alluded to the aftermath of 9/11. The 9/11. The terrorists’ attack with highjacked jetliners on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the intended attack thwarted by heroic passengers who sacrificed their lives in a crash into a Pennsylvania field.

Americans everywhere were shocked and grief-stricken as they watched video footage, broadcast again and again, of the jumbo jets crashing into the Twin Towers and later of those same two towers tumbling down to Ground Zero. Again and again.

Seventeen years ago Tuesday we were shocked and grief-stricken, stunned and angered. But very quickly — well before the shock lifted — the sense of unity referenced in the headline over Lane’s piece was evident.

In every corner of Attleboro we were seeing the U.S. flag waving — often on houses, mind you, where Old Glory never flew on July 4, Memorial Day or Veterans Day.

From throughout Sun Chronicle country reports were pouring in of professional police officers and firefighters and volunteers of all stripes rushing to New York City to aid in rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of the disastrous attack.

We were on the threshold of a War on Terror and everyday citizens in towns like Norton and Mansfield acted like their parents and grandparents had when their towns were the homefront of World War II. They gave to aid drives. They went to churches in greater number than usual. They stood together at vigils.

I was editorial page editor of The Sun Chronicle. It was a job I loved. Except for one thing: About 30 percent of my time had to be devoted to dealing with letters to the editor; 30 percent of my time and about 50 percent of my emotional energy.

That’s not to tell you that anyone who rhapsodizes about letters to the editor as a beautiful Democratic institution is pulling your leg. There’s something wonderful about giving anyone who can write an opportunity to speak his piece to a wide audience. There’s something very good about giving a voice to people who in other ways may feel disenfranchised. I was proud of editing and writing headlines for an average of 1,500 letters a year.

But too many of those letters came from a subset I called “the frequent flyers.” It wasn’t just that they wrote too often; they always wrote on the same subject. “Johnny one-notes,” they were called by another letter-writer, making a complaint. I listed a dozen of them in a memo suggesting a policy holding them to a reasonable number of letters, like one in a lifetime. Blissfully, in my five years of retirement I have forgotten the names and one-great-causes of all but two of the O’Himagains and O’Heragains: one whose letters were always about abortion, another whose letters were always about bullying.

The unity spirit in the days after 9/11 gave me a reprieve. My in box was daily filled with letters from writers whose names I had never seen before. Their messages were often passionate; more often they were reasoned appeals to stand together. I can’t say they put all differences aside, but the usual give and take in the letters section was expressed a tad more civilly.

Then, early in October, came a letter in familiar typewriting that agreed the loss of 3,000 lives in 9/11 was a deep tragedy, but what about the thousands more whose murders are allowed under Roe V. Wade.

And a day or two later came one describing 9/11 as the ultimate act of bullying.

The honeymoon wasn’t over, but it sure looked like it would be ending, that people would be leaving the unity seen in the public square in retreat to more familiar corners.

On the surface it seems odd to remember the weeks after 9/11 as the time of the greatest unity in this community in the last half-century. Just as it seems odd to remember one of the most joyous times as the aftermath of the Blizzard of ‘78. People are happiest in times when they are dramatically reminded of how much they need each other, of how important it is to stand together.

We just shouldn’t be surprised that such times aren’t lasting, that some combination of forces will pull and push us back to partisan and personal interests.

Source :

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