Usually, when someone wants to encapsulate the essence of something at once heartbreaking and incredible, he or she begins with a story. ABC News has this segment called “America Strong” that focuses on exactly this type of communication: identifying the diamond in the rough, that one inspiring person or example that lifts our spirits and encourages us to brush past the obstacles in our paths.
Twelve years after the September 11th attacks, the United States is resilient but still uncertain. Tellingly, our regional woes in the Middle East play out in real time next to our homages and messages of respect; the shadow of the Syrian crisis, fears of ongoing turmoil and instability in the world’s most volatile region, and the specter of a geopolitical threat coming from Russia certainly permeate American concerns and consciousness. The causes of 9-11 are so complex that over a decade later strategists still debate the roots of the event, yet we as American citizens know that no matter the cause of the terrorist attack, that fateful day was the moment of awakening to a different kind of world. This reality, twelve years on, gives us at once a sense of listlessness and purpose–we are unsure of our role in the world, yet we know that America has the integrity and resolve to chart a better course at home and abroad.
The story of September 11th, then, cannot be fully described in a single narrative. In our national mindset, it is at once a symbol of disaster and recovery, terror and hope, and chaos and unity. In some ways, these conflicting notions have surfaced again since 2001: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria all represent some form of cognitive dissonance akin to the confusion of watching the fall of the Twin Towers. But for any of us who succumb to the cynicism of our nation’s position, let the events in the aftermath of 9-11 provide a guiding light: for the reason it is impossible to describe a single narrative is that on September 11th thousands of heroic stories and examples played out across America in the course of a single day. Ordinary folk donned their firefighters’ gear and climbed the stairs to immortality; airline passengers flying over a field in Pennsylvania took their fate into their own hands to change the course of history. By nightfall, parents summoned the courage to inform their children about the harshness and compassion of humanity. They then turned on the television to watch a president who, although he would become the source of controversy down the road, had surmounted claims of weakness to staunchly and proudly represent the sentiments of a reeling country.
Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of 9-11 is that its multiple lessons still apply today. Yes, for now Syria seems an enigma. Yes, our politics are dysfunctional and our government unreliable. Yes, not all is well domestically, and certainly not internationally. But if this day of remembrance means anything in 2013, it is that we must never doubt the human capacity to astonish. We can resolve even the darkest of dilemmas and navigate the trickiest of situations. Today, that is our goal. Today, and forevermore, that is our story.