Seventeen years ago, I sat quietly at my desk in the eighth-grade wing of Dunn Middle School, diligently working on the science test scheduled this day. Suddenly, the distant sounds of televisions reverberated throughout the hallways. I grew distracted because someone clearly disregarded the quiet solace of our school.
Little did I know, on the now live television screens in those other classrooms, buildings were on fire, people were dying and America was under attack. I will never forget standing in the hallway afterward, watching the second tower fall on a television located in the extra science lab. What was happening?
In the days following 9/11, America was shocked and stunned. How could anyone deal such a tremendous blow to the greatest nation on Earth? But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we emerged from the rubble of Ground Zero one unified nation. After 9/11, people of all races and religions consoled one another at candlelight vigils throughout the country.
American flags were flying on nearly every porch and flag pole in neighborhoods across the nation. Some even went as far as tattooing stars and stripes on their bodies. On the evening of these debilitating attacks, roughly 150 members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — stood beside each other and sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol.
The days after 9/11 became the halcyon moment of comity in all racial, political, and economic conversations. During this time, there was no Democrat or Republican, no black or white, no rich or poor. We were ALL Americans.
Fast forward 17 years to Sept. 11, 2018. Each day, our televisions and newspapers are filled with stories about a nation separated by political, racial and economic divides. Civil unrest erupts over the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer. Protesters tear down monuments because of the messages they may portray. Democrats and Republicans heatedly spar over governmental decisions. Individuals burn their shoes and clothing in protest of a new brand spokesman.
This has been a violent and tragic summer, and it follows a period of pronounced divisiveness in every facet of American life. But, how did we get here? What continues to drive this divisiveness? The color of our skin? The amount of money in our bank accounts? The party with which we are affiliated? The answer may be hidden in plain sight.
In his farewell address, George Washington cautioned Americans against forming factions and giving way to the party spirit. His reason for giving such warning was due to the harmful effects which the partisan spirit kindles in society.
“[I]t serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”
Take a look at the events of today. If ill-founded jealousies, false alarms, intensified animosity, riot, and insurrection don’t sound like daily headlines in America, I’m not sure what does. The fact is we are continually told unrest is the sole fault of inequalities which persist in our country. But this is not accurate. The true dividing line between the two Americas is not economic, race or education. The divide is ideology and thinking. Unrest in America is largely attributable to an exaggerated loyalty to political parties, which fuels an unwillingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and ideas.
Seventeen years ago, our innocence was stripped away. Our inner sanctum was attacked and we all stood with tears in our eyes as we mourned the loss of roughly 3,000 Americans. But, 17 years ago, we came together as one. Sen. Lamar Alexander said it best. “September 11th is one of our worst days but it brought out the best in us. It unified us as a country and showed our charitable instincts and reminded us of what we stood for and stand for.”
National tragedy should not be a necessary catalyst for unity in America. I believe we, as a nation, are better than continued hatred toward our neighbors. I believe we are capable of understanding the values and opinions of those with differing viewpoints. Suspending one’s thoughts long enough to ascertain exactly why he or she feels so strongly about something breeds actual progress and collaboration. It garners unity, bipartisanship, and basic human respect.
During this time of remembering 9/11, I challenge you to be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. Use a moment of silence to reflect on the lives we lost and to remember that we are one, indivisible nation.
Mr. Barefoot, an attorney, is a Dunn native, attended Triton High School and graduated from Campbell University’s School of Law.