It’s the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 today, and it’s always a somber and sad occasion. I covered the terrorist attacks for the local newspaper in town, arriving the morning of Sept. 12 and spending the night in a firehouse a few blocks from Ground Zero. I watched as the firefighters bravely trudged out to dig through the mountainous rubble for their fallen comrades and all the others.
It sometimes seems that so many of the lessons of 9/11 have been lost in the years since. Although it was obviously horrific, there was also something beautiful that happened down there in those days – we came together as a country. I recall the determined valor of the rescuers, many of whom have perished from inhaling debris and who drove to New York from all over the country to help. I remember a cab driver drove me 40 blocks for free because he could see I was coughing from breathing in the lingering dust and was completely exhausted. When does that happen in New York? I recall how everyone tried to take care of everyone else and how we were all united against a common enemy. We weren’t fighting each other, at least for a short time, back then.
Yet how soon we forget the lessons we embraced right after that day. So, here are the top lessons we should remember about 9/11:
1. Cops and firefighters are public servants who deserve our respect.
These are respectable, honorable professions at their heart. Remember how everyone praised our law enforcement officers in the wake of 9/11? People praised them for running toward the Twin Towers – and danger – while everyone else was running out. How soon we forget this. I recall the days when people held parades to celebrate our nation’s law enforcement heroes, when everyone was wearing NYPD and NYFD T-shirts and hats and when public service was roundly recognized as something noble.
That was then. Now, American police, especially, have been turned into anti-hero villains by some, and a firefighter is punched in a Milwaukee street when they go to help. Although they don’t all get it right all the time (no one in any profession does), the rhetoric has been way too generalized, and it’s time we returned to the post-9/11 recognition that law enforcers, as a whole, perform valiant and very difficult jobs in situations of great stress – and they risk their lives on a daily basis, for us. How did we allow them to be turned into society’s anti-heroes?
2. Remember when we all flew the flag?
I still do, and hopefully you do too. That was something beautiful in the days after 9/11 – flags in windows, flags on fire trucks, flags on cars, people waving flags, people carrying flags, people wearing flags. There was something great about that. We should go back to it. I mean it sincerely when I say that. The blocks around Ground Zero were literally the most horrific spot on earth at that time. It was like wandering into "The Day After." But they were also among the most beautiful. And that’s because of the spirit that existed there, embodying positive attributes. Unity. Patriotism. Helping others. All of those values (almost clichés) we talk about supporting but so rarely do.
3. Remember when we were all united in recognizing the fact that national security – that border security – mattered and needed strengthening?
How soon we forget. Now, people are called racists for daring to suggest that we need more security at our borders and that we need a discerning immigration system. What’s the point of having security at the airport and capping refugees when people can cross illegally and stay here without penalty? It’s a bit frightening that it’s become so de rigueur in some corners to even talk about strengthening our border security.
I recognize that most people who come across the border are decent folk who are trying to achieve the American dream, and who are not terrorists or criminals. But others who are bad guys will take advantage of such a system. It shouldn’t be inherently considered racist to want a coherent immigration and border security system, and I say this as a person who thinks Donald Trump’s mass deportation plan is unworkable, inhumane and totally nutty.
And it’s not just about the flow of people. 80 percent of Chicago’s drugs come from a single cartel that moves its product largely across the southern border, and most of Milwaukee’s drugs come from Chicago … but that’s another story.
4. We all united after 9/11 in praise for our country (well, most of us did).
People reached out to other people and praised the endurance of America. We vowed to never let this happen again. We vowed to not let them defeat us or to defeat our ideals. Now, we have politicians run around telling us that we need to make America great again – this is a way of saying that it is not great now. People darkly trash our country, calling for a new revolution or secession (and this is barely controversial these days), and people argue that we’ve gone to hell.
We won the Powerball of life just by being born here. As an outspoken woman, I know that this is true. We should remember that. Furthermore, there’s more that unites us than divides us (hard to remember that with all of the politicians who are making their case by trashing this group or the other). This IS a great country, and we’re all in it together. It doesn’t need to be great again. It still is – even though it’s always been an imperfect one.
5. Remember when we focused on what was important?
We didn’t obsess over Kim Kardashian’s butt or Megyn Kelly menstruating or other absurdities because we were focused on what mattered in our country – on stories of heroism and self-sacrifice, of Americans on a plane who shouted "let’s roll" and said enough, and on those firefighters who ran toward danger as others ran out. It was a more serious time.
Now, we’ve become complacent. We have lulled ourselves into thinking we have the luxury to be trivial. Our debates are "first world problems." Let’s get back to focusing on what matters and on people who, when challenged, rise to their best selves (rather than those who constantly cater to their worst selves, picking on other people’s frailties or differences).
6. Nation building is a very tricky business, especially when it's built on faulty intelligence.
Rushing to war is no small thing. Nor should it be. At the same time, we were engaged then, on the offense, in the months after 9/11. And we haven’t had another one.
Now, we seem like a country playing defense or sort of tuning out. Our premature withdrawal from Iraq is an utter disgrace (and, yes, I get that Saddam didn’t attack us on 9/11, but even though it wasn’t Obama’s war at the start, I expected him not to lose it). Our withdrawal has been a disgrace because we abandoned the Iraqi people to great horrors, and we promised freedom to them. We had a covenant with them in that way. We said, we are promising you our ideals – freedom. Then we left them to something worse, the literal opposite of what we stand for. ISIS commits atrocities that a moral world should not allow.
We need to get back on offense like we were then, but while learning the lessons of what we didn’t do exactly right – we should pause before we decide that has to mean ground war. We need to find a place somewhere in the middle, between Bush’s preemption and Obama’s disengagement (and yes I get it that he’s lobbing missiles at ISIS. But, seriously, the globe is watching gay people being tossed off roofs, women stoned and Americans raped and beheaded on TV, and we haven’t stopped it yet?). Somehow, I think we would not have tolerated those things on Sept. 12, 2001. Yeah, we acted pretty emotionally after that. Maybe we needed to.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.