On a surreal, sultry October night in 2001, the Yankees came back to the Bronx tied at two games apiece with the Oakland A’s in a playoff series delayed by the 9/11 attacks. The Yankees had been down 2-0 but battled back to force a deciding game, a moment that galvanized the hopes of a battered city. We would survive. We would prevail. We would show the world that the power of what unites us as a nation is greater than the fear sown by the attacks.
When the crowd rose for the national anthem, one man stood but didn’t take off his hat. Why he didn’t isn’t clear, nor does it really matter. It’s not uncommon for people to simply stand up and leave their hats on at a baseball game when the Star Spangled banner is played. People were still finding their way to their seats, lined up at the concession stands for hot dogs and beer. But on this particular night, that man’s actions elicited an angry response.
“Take your (obscenity) hat off,” a man in the crowd yelled.
“Take. Your. F———. Hat. Off.” Louder this time.
So instead of solemnly listening to the Star Spangled Banner, for everyone within earshot the moment was shattered by one person who decided that his version of patriotism was right and that he was within his rights to berate someone with, perhaps, a different interpretation. Or, in this case, maybe someone who simply forgot to take off a baseball cap.
In hindsight, it was a frighteningly prescient moment.
The attacks of 9/11 left us staggered and afraid. A foreign attack of that magnitude on U.S. soil was so beyond our experience that it stripped clean our veneer of American invulnerability, leaving exposed a fearful and unsure nation. Never before had this happened. Never again, we resolved, would we allow it to happen.
We remembered, and still remember, the 3,000 souls lost that day: Men and women who’d gone to work at the World Trade Center, passengers on Flight 93, the government workers at the Pentagon who were killed, the first responders who came to the rescue. Every year, on Sept. 11, we say their names.
And we told stories about the heroes, the police officers and firefighters who charged into the doomed towers, climbing toward the sky to save lives as the building burned around them. If the attack had left us broken and fearful, the stories of heroism lifted us up. Could there be a more selfless act of community and patriotism than risking almost certain death to save the lives of others?
But while we mourned the dead and saluted the heroes, a different narrative was taking shape beneath the surface. The horror of the attacks never left us. It chipped away at our sense of well being, the fear of that day becoming a force that continued to grow within our collective memory, sometimes ignored, often exploited, always dangerous.
Fear does horrible things to a person; it can be catastrophic when it takes hold of a people. Fear led us into an ill-advised war against Iraq, the specter of “weapons of mass destruction” blinding us to the truth. Fear led us to an incursion into Afghanistan, the consequences of which we are still grappling with today. Fear made us want to hurt someone back, even if we were targeting the wrong people.
But the less obvious and, perhaps, more persistent consequence of that fear was how it fueled the rise of tribalism and divisiveness that has become the defining dynamic of American society in the 21st century.
Granted, there are other factors here: The toxic stew of social media, growing social and economic inequality, the partisan preaching of cable news networks and the rise of Trumpism all played a role in the sad place we find ourselves today. Perhaps we’d be in the same mess had the attacks of 9/11 not taken place.
But not likely.
Over the last two decades, as the fear of that horrible day has grown within us, we have retreated to safe ground, surrounding ourselves with people who think as we do, believe as we do, see the world as we do. And over time, the effects have been unmistakable. Now we avoid people who think differently from us, trash the beliefs of those with whom we disagree and blame those who see the world differently for various ills.
On Sept. 11, 2001 we were a nation at war with terrorism. On Sept. 11, 2021 we are a nation at war with ourselves.
Fear often lies at the heart of human spirit’s worst moments and the last two decades have seen a dramatic erosion of our collective belief in the promise of America. Now, as tribalism trumps reason, the debate over vaccines has become a debate over “freedom,” Congress is attacked in a twisted effort to protect democracy and the flag is too often brandished as a weapon in the widening culture wars. Donald Trump may have stoked and exacerbated these divisions, but he did not create them.
Two decades have past and here is our reality: We are divided. We are angry. We are still afraid.
The United States today is too often a place where everyone is telling everyone else to “take their fucking hat off.” It’s a place where people are so consumed with their own version of what’s right that truth has taken a back seat to tearing down anyone who has a different version. It is, sadly, a place where fear has become more present than hope.
The terrorists did not succeed with the death and destruction of that day, but we have handed them a victory by allowing ourselves to be governed by the worst within ourselves rather than the best. Great societies often fall when internal fractures so weaken the whole that they are vulnerable to attack.
We may tell ourselves we are safer than we were 20 years ago.
But we’d be wrong.
— Hartford Courant, Sept. 10