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September 11, 2018

Longing for a Return to a Unified America

On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, I walked out of my building on 18th Street in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park and hung a right toward Third Avenue. When I got to the corner, what I saw coming took me aback.

It was decidedly out of place; a surreal prop dropped from the sky. On the other hand, in the surreal world of post-Sept. 11 America, it didn’t seem so crazy. Our entire nation, one day after the worst attacks ever on our soil, seemed like the set of an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

It was a Michigan State Police cruiser. On patrol. In Manhattan.

* * *

Twenty-four hours earlier, for a few long minutes, I’d thought I was in danger of dying. A five-story wall of smoke and airborne debris rolled toward me and about 300 hundred other people on the sidewalk five blocks from the World Trade Center. A man’s voice from the crowd had shouted, “Run, it could kill us! There might have been poison in those planes.”

If everyone had not been panicked to that point, helplessly watching the twin towers burn until the north one crumbled into itself, this gentleman’s speculation certainly did the trick. What happened next, I describe as controlled pandemonium. People ran frantically away from the smoke toward the East River. But as some stumbled and fell in the rushing throng, others would stop to help them to their feet. It wasn’t “everyone for himself,” it was more like “everyone for everyone.”

So, when I saw that Michigan State Police cruiser the next day, my initial reaction of “How screwed up has our country become that we need police from Michigan to patrol the streets of Manhattan?” soon gave way to the realization that “This is just a show of unity. The people of Michigan are reaching out to let New Yorkers know they’ve got our back. It’s a good thing.”

I’m pretty sure we all knew that the Michigan State Police weren’t going to apprehend Osama bin Laden on the streets of New York. But those fine officers, as well as citizens from every other state in the union, were going to demonstrate to the world that Americans stick together. Donations and volunteers poured in from all over the country to help New York in its greatest time of need. People lined up at the armory near my home to give blood. Others donated cases of water, food and clothing to those helping in the search-and-rescue efforts.

The memory of that Michigan State Police car stands out to me now, as we approach the 17th anniversary of Sept. 11. It stands out because of what it symbolized: An American unity and spirit of non-partisan fellowship that seems to have disappeared from our national landscape as surely as have the twin towers.

If you use social media, or even just read the news – “fake” or otherwise – you know firsthand the divisions cutting through American society. Granted, some of the flames are fanned by foreign instigators and phony social media accounts, but there are plenty of Americans tossing around phrases such as “libtard,” “Trumpster,” “snowflake” and “white supremacist,” to single out just a few of many invectives.

On the Friday after Sept. 11, I called Hertz to rent a car to visit my sister at the Jersey Shore. I didn’t know if it would be possible given the confusion and pandemonium that still reigned. When I got through to a customer-service rep in Oklahoma, I told the woman I’d like to rent a car from a local Hertz office.

You live in New York City?” she asked me.

Yes,” I said, fearing that her next words might reduce me to tears, as I had been several times already since the towers fell – and would be again many times over the next year.

Dropping her business-like tone and addressing me in an almost-whisper, she said, “How are you doing up there? Are you OK? Is there anything we can do for you?”

I didn’t cry, but I came close. Here was a stranger half a continent away, showing genuine concern for me, her fellow American. I might be reaching by saying that if the situation occurred today, she’d first try to figure out if I voted the way she did. But I don’t think I’m that far off base. At least, it doesn’t feel like it. Post something on social media today, defending or attacking the current administration, even in the most civil of terms, and see if you don’t receive vitriol in return.

It’s simplistic and naive to ask that as a tribute to the victims of Sept. 11, if even for just a day, we drop the caustic rhetoric and insulting labels when engaging with our fellow Americans; but I’ll ask, nonetheless. Unfortunately, it seems that a return to the days of non-partisan unity and support for doing what’s best for America and Americans – regardless of political affiliation – is about as likely as a Michigan State Police car patrolling the streets of Manhattan. But I, for one, will give it a try.

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This piece was edited by Lee F. Lerner 

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