9/11: The American Family Survives

2011-09-07-LibertyFreedomTowerLG.pngIn his new book, The Sibling Effect, science writer Jeffrey Kluger (disclosure: my big brother) makes an acute observation about the durability of family.

"A household is ... a parliament of personalities that are forever in motion--and often in conflict," he writes. "As siblings, we may fight and sulk and fume, but by nighttime we still return to the same twin beds in the same shared room (and) peace is made."

As the youngest brother in one of those noisy households Jeff writes about, I can vouch for that constant ebb and flow of familial alliances--that's what being a sib is about. But I also feel that way about being an American. Because if there's one thing that we as a nation have demonstrated over the past decade, it is this very resilience--this ability to bicker and cohere, to bellow and console, to raise fists and join hands.

Ten years ago this Sunday, 19 men in four jets tore a fiery hole in history and, in doing so, dealt a staggering blow to our national family. Rocked by our uncharacteristic vulnerability to attack, and shocked by this first such aggression on our mainland since the Revolutionary War, we instantly huddled together like brothers and sisters do in times of peril. Most remarkably, we allowed ourselves to be led.

The mayor of New York became our national symbol of heroism, not just for his cool-headedness in a time of crisis, but for his wiser, almost parental candor in telling us the truth. "The number of casualties," Rudy Giuliani said on that first awful day, "will be more than any of us can bear."

President Bush stood atop the still smoldering pile of rubble at Ground Zero, megaphone in hand, and reminded the world that our nation was "on bended knee in prayer" for those we lost. That kind of compassionate faith cannot be overstated.

Even the icons of our popular culture offered a sense of comfort. "Any fool can blow something up," comedian Jon Stewart told his audience through unexpected tears nine days after the attack. "But to see these firefighters, these policemen, people from all over the country, literally with buckets, rebuilding--that's extraordinary. And that's why we've already won. ... It's democracy. They can't shut that down."

Much has been discussed about this exceptional way that our nation coalesced in the wake of 9/11. And much has been discussed about how we just as quickly splintered. Stewart would soon become the unlikely torch-bearer of the left. New York's hero mayor would embark on a presidential campaign that drew not on the sense unity he had once instilled, but on a more conventional, unappetizing partisanship. And our president, wielding a different kind of megaphone, would marshal our nation into two wars, igniting a debate so fierce that it continues today.

Even Ground Zero was not immune to the turmoil. After the wreckage was cleared, bitter seeds of resentment would be planted in that sacred soil as we fought over what kind of shrine should rise from such hallowed ground--its symbolism, its practicality, its purpose.

So, yes, the past 10 years have been fraught with discord. And yet, isn't this precisely the way America has always conducted her messy business? Isn't this exactly how families--especially the closest of them--ultimately survive?

I'd like to believe that for all the acrimony that has arisen from Sept. 11, our nation has attained a greater depth of character. We saw this in the strength of those Pentagon employees who, even before the sickening hole in their building had been patched, pulled in tighter to their desks and worked with that much more conviction to ensure the protection of our liberty.

We saw it in the selflessness of those passengers on Flight 93--the lone aircraft that did not find its target that day, but instead plummeted into a field in rural Pennsylvania--whose acts of bravery and grace aboard that jet continue to inspire us.

And we saw it in the perseverance of the Ground Zero laborers, who rose above the politics and passion buried in that battered 16-acre parcel of land to ensure that water now flows in the twin memorial pools; and that the bronze parapets that surround them now bear the names of nearly 3,000 fellow Americans, forever engraving their memory in our national conscience.

On the evening of this July 4, I witnessed an amazing sight. I was aboard a boat in New York Harbor, preparing to watch the fireworks with friends, when our captain slowed the engines and swung our bow east. With the Statue of Liberty directly behind us, we gazed silently at 70 of the planned 104 illuminated stories of the new 1 World Trade Center, piercing the night sky with a soft golden hue. The juxtaposition of those two structures--a symbol of freedom at our backs, a rising skyscraper in our sights--was breathtaking. Stewart was right: We rebuild.

It has been a long and contentious 10 years, but I choose to heed my brother's assurance about the enduring bond among brothers and sisters. For all our quarreling, we of the American family do eventually return to that same shared room.

This essay by Bruce Kluger was published by USA Today on September 7, 2011