Many people responded to the 9/11 attacks by putting flag decals on their cars, singing God Bless America and other patriotic songs, donating to various charities, and wearing flag lapel pins. At the time, I warned against such gestures, as I feared they amounted to a kind of empty or false unity. But today is different: we desperately need people to take such action. Our politics and public life are toxic, so much so that even to hold the 10th anniversary commemorations this past weekend required a kind of cease fire among deeply divided politicians and their supporters. Endless acrimony has left a stain on the public square, and left many of us bemoaning the daily conduct of our leaders. One can only hope our leaders will enlighten themselves and find a better path. But don’t hold your breath.
Instead, it is everyday citizens – you, me, and others – who ultimately will place the nation on a better trajectory. The task before us is to “rebuild” the nation – but not solely by constructing new memorials and buildings at Ground Zero and elsewhere. For bricks and mortar are not the most important building blocks for this rebuilding.
The first and most fundamental need is to “signal” each other that we are ready to step forward and join together. To achieve this, we must embrace and spread small public acts and rituals that get people out of their homes and demonstrate a sense of connection and compassion for one another – acts such as helping a neighbor, painting a local school, singing public-spirited songs together, and displaying the flag, among others. I am not advocating make-work volunteer efforts, or superficial initiatives, but small acts grounded in a sense of common purpose and accomplishment and the greater good.
I realize these public acts will not solve our most pressing challenges. At this point my goal is more modest, yet no less important. We must get people engaged with one another at a time when people no longer trust their leaders, many of the organizations created to serve their communities, and often one another. People worry no one understands the reality of their lives, their concerns, or aspirations – and that no one will stand with them in tough times.
People’s desire for a new course is not rooted in the politics of ideology or partisanship, as some would have you believe, but in the basic human hope for connection and compassion. Thus this challenge is one of humanity and identity, not simply politics and policy. People want to feel a part of an able and connected America; they want to be seen, heard and understood; they want to restore their faith and pride in themselves and the nation.
I want to underscore just how basic and vital this first step is. I recognize that many of the challenges faced across the country require more than the small public acts I am recommending here – they demand nothing short of sustained and systemic action if there is to be real and lasting change. There is no other way to effectively address underlying issues involving public schools, income disparities, health care, energy independence, and the like. But make no mistake: we must lay the proper groundwork to bring about the trust and public will necessary to break current gridlock and create a genuine sense of possibility in the nation. This is our most urgent work now.
That’s why on 10 years after 9/11, it is many of the very gestures that emerged after 9/11, the very ones I felt back then did not go far enough, that fit the bill today. If we are to get anything of real magnitude done in the days and years ahead, then we must have the courage to take the small steps that will get us moving in the right direction and build from there.
It’s not too late. Let’s start to rebuild the nation, together, one small public act after another.