January, 1973. Ten years old.
I was standing by the front door with my parents - I believe it was early evening, could have been a little later than that. My father was holding the door open, my mother was next to him and I was in front of them, just outside the door, hopping from foot to foot because it was cold out and I had on socks, but no shoes. Funny what we remember, isn't it?
My father was flicking the porch light on and off. As we looked down the block, we could see most of our neighbors doing the same. Someone was beeping a car horn, long and short beeps that sounded like morse code. We stood there in flicker light, amid short bursts of cheers and a few firecrackers from our surrounding neighbors. Then we shut the door against the cold and the noise and sat down to watch the news.
The Vietnam war had all but ended. I probably didn't know what a ceasfire meant at that age; I wasn't even sure what the war was about. I just knew it caused a lot of turmoil, rage and worry. I knew that my cousin protested the war every night, much to the worry of my aunt. I knew that the nightly news upset my parents. I knew that a lot of people had died. So it was with much relief that I greeted the end of the war.
There were other moments like that in my life, ones that I remember with just as much clarity; putting yellow ribbons around our trees at the start of the first Gulf War and watching all my neighbors do the same, or staring out of the window of my high school at the busy road, cars streaming past with their headlights on even though it was broad daylight on a clear day. It was something started by a local radio host - everyone drive with your headlights on for the hostages in Iran. One kid in my class that day - I believe it was English Lit - asked our teacher what the purpose of doing such a thing was. His exact words were "What's the point? It's not like the hostages can see us." The teacher (I wish I could remember his name) replied that it wasn't for the hostages as much as it was for us - the people who were watching the hostage drama unfold. He said, We want to be a part of something bigger than us because it makes us feel less helpless in a situation like this. We can't really do anything for the hostages, but we can do something for ourselves. We can be united, and that gives us strength, and perhaps it will give the families of the hostages strength as well. Paraphrased, of course. My memory isn't that good.
Fast forward to 2001. September 12th, to be exact. The Day After. It was late, maybe around 9pm. I went to the store for milk or bread or something mundane like that. After I left the parking lot of the store, something compelled me to drive around. Aimlessly, I drove. Down main streets, side streets, past strip malls and houses and the elementary school.
There were people out, in large numbers. They stood on sidewalks, sat on curbs, hung out on their porches or gathered in the schoolyard. They had flags and they had candles. They sang, they talked, they hugged.
I was still ensared in the liberal net at that point. Admiteddly, I was no great patriot. But the site of all those flags waving made me feel something I had not felt in a long time. Pride. Pride in my country and its people. I got out of my car by the school, but stood off to the side. I watched for a little while as an elderly man led a prayer amid a circle of people holding candles.
A few minutes later, I headed home. Almost every house I passed had candles out at the curb. All kinds of candles set out by the street so that the whole block was glowing with the flickering of the flames.
When I got home, I found some candles and put them outside by the street. I brought the kids outside and we lit the candles and said a prayer. There's nothing like 3,000 people killed in a terrorist attack to make an atheist pray. The kids went in and I sat on the grass for a while, staring at all the candles, watching my neighbor's flag sway in the wind. I felt part of something. Part of a whole.
For the next few days America was that whole. We were together, we were strong. Even while we cried and mourned, we had strength and resolve. We were all in this together and while the candlelight vigils could do nothing to turn the clock back to September 10th, they at least gave us hands to hold.
So what happened? When did we slip away from that great togetherness and split into fractions? I don't remember it happening all at once - it must have been a slow process, like ice breaking away from a glacier.
I suppose this is why both sides of 9/11 - the September 10th side and the September 12th side, are so strong willed in their fight to be right. We each belong to part of a whole, and for most of us, that's an important thing to be. In much the same way people join fan clubs or go to Star Trek conventions or join book groups, it's because it makes us feel less alone. To feel alone is to feel helpless, sometimes weak. So we pound our stake in the ground of the side we've chosen, put out our sign and shout and holler with the rest. If we've reached a fever pitch, it's because we each feel the frightening scenario of our side losing coming closer. What happens when we are on the losing side? Our ranks thin, our circles of candle-holding friends gets smaller and we stop feeling like part of a whole. We become shards of glass.
So each of us - whether you are on the left or on the right - fights like hell to keep that togetherness within the group. We fight because being part of something is the only way we can feel as if we are doing something to make ourselves heard; if turning on your car lights or tying ribbons or chanting slogans are the only way we can stop ourselves from feeling helpless, we do it.
I miss those post 9/11 days when we were all, for the most part, in the same circle. I thought it was clear back then the we all had a common enemy and that enemy was not ourselves, not America. We've made enemies of each other now, and while we are busy fighting each other, our real enemies laugh at us and know that to divide is to conquer.