Could you name this country if I described its people during a brief time in history?
Teenagers stood by roadways waving flags.
Athletic teams sewed flags on their uniforms.
Cars roared down the freeway with flags lashed to their sides.
People waiting in lines spontaneously broke into songs about God and country.
Political leaders and citizens held public and private prayers.
College students prayed in groups on campuses.
Mayors, governors and presidents quoted scriptures and called for a national day of prayer.
The secretary of defense opened a meeting with prayer.
On Sundays, people packed churches to capacity, instead of stadiums.
People tended to go out of their way to be kinder and more understanding and tolerant.
This was America in the days that followed 9/11, 11 years ago today.
Maybe you don't recognize the place anymore.
The pundits will tell you that civility has been replaced by hostility, religion by secularism, patriotism by cynicism.
To use an old metaphor, we treated 9/11 like an accident on the freeway — we hit the brakes, slowed down to take a look and to ponder it all, and vowed to slow down. For a while, we were scared to go any faster, but eventually we stepped on the gas pedal and raced along again somewhere above the speed limit (while texting and punching the radio dial for a better song and yelling at the car in the next lane that cut us off).
Eleven years later, my memories of 9/11 are as much about a nation rising as buildings falling.
Nobody had seen anything like it since Pearl Harbor and D-Day.
In a sense, as I noted here 11 years ago, terrorism backfired. Instead of terrorists dividing America, they did just the opposite.
Suddenly, being American and turning to God was cool again. Nobody was apologizing for it, not even the ACLU or Bill Maher. It was as if we stepped back in time to the '40s and '50s. You half expected George Bailey to come running down the street.
Every day looked like the Fourth of July. I remember seeing three teenagers standing beside a busy road on a Friday evening waving a large American flag instead of playing Xbox. A man in a suit stood on the corner of another busy road waving a flag instead of going to work. People in our neighborhood woke up one morning to find American flags in their yards — Boy Scouts had planted them in the night. Complete strangers broke out singing "God Bless America" together. Businesses placed signs in their windows expressing the same sentiment.
God and patriotism made a big comeback in America, there being no atheists in foxholes and that sort of thing. God hadn't heard this many prayers from Americans since they charged up Normandy. The Big Phone in the Sky was ringing off the hook. It was suddenly OK for political leaders and public officials to reference God. A national magazine ran a cover story "God Bless America." God and country were mentioned in the same sentence again and nobody got upset.
But that was then and this is now. There have been a lot of changes since that make you wonder who really won (or maybe you haven't been to an airport in the last few years)? We're no longer in a foxhole and God has been banned from the public arena again and morale and patriotism are suffering along with the economy (at least respect for firefighters, police officers and soldiers has remained high).
Earlier this summer I visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Thousands marched through the grounds with a solemnity reserved for church or Gettysburg or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Some dabbed at tears and almost all of them rubbed their fingers over the names of the victims engraved on the memorial. At least in that moment Americans are given another reason to pause, slow down and remember.