Tomorrow we pause to remember, as we have for nine September mornings, the lives and memories of those lost on September 11th, 2001. It is hard to believe that the attacks of that autumn day are now approaching a decade in our past. It just does not seem that long ago. And yet, even with the passage of time, the legacy and the impact of the attacks on our national psyche and our national politics have not become much clearer.
If you visit Ground Zero today you see a bustling site of activity with skyscrapers rising, a transportation hub growing, and the National 9/11 Memorial taking shape with deep, cascading pools visible and trees now in the ground. The portion of the Pentagon damaged in the attacks has been rebuilt, the entire building has been refurbished in the ensuing years, and the memorial park at the site of the impact is one of the most peaceful places in a monument-filled Washington, D.C. The Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania is being constructed as a national memorial under the care of the National Park Service and will be dedicated on the 10th anniversary of the attacks next year. These are the physical scars healing ever-so-slowly.
But some of the wounds remain raw, as evidenced by the raging battle over the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan and the proposed “Koran-burning” by a Florida pastor. We have seen a marked increase in the anti-Islamic rhetoric in our national discourse. A recent Time/CNN poll showed that 61 percent of Americans are opposed to the Park 51 Islamic center near Ground Zero. The same poll showed that one in three Americans think Muslims should be banned from running for President and that one in four mistakenly believe that President Obama—a Christian—is a Muslim (I’m still unclear on what the problem is even if he was a Muslim). Newt Gingrich, a potential Republican presidential candidate, went on Fox News and—breathtakingly—equated Muslims to Nazis.
To our detriment, the politicization of Ground Zero and the demonization of the broader Muslim-American community are seemingly creeping into the mainstream. When General Petraeus, the American/NATO commander of forces in Afghanistan, has to pull his focus from the field of battle to ask a Florida preacher not to endanger American troops already risking their lives in combat, I would hope it would be enough for us to take a collective step back from the slippery slope of demagoguery.
September 11th is the day to take this collective step back from the edge. It is not a day for partisanship and division. It is a day of remembrance, of collective mourning and most importantly, a day of national unity when every American, regardless of religious faith and ethnicity, stops to rekindle the better angels of their soul. The physical scars of the 9/11 attacks have mostly healed. But we need to do a much better job— both as a nation and as individuals—of healing our emotions as well. The nearly 3,000 men and women who lost their lives nine years ago that morning deserve nothing less.