Opinion: 9/12/01 was the day America came together

Police officers stand guard near the site of the World Trade Center in New York, in this Sept. 12, 2001, file photo.

Police officers stand guard near the site of the World Trade Center in New York, in this Sept. 12, 2001, file photo.

Associated Press file photo

It may have been 20 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I didn’t sleep much and I was up early to head to the office.

A member of the West Virginia state Legislature at the time, I was in Charleston, W.Va., for regularly scheduled meetings. Arriving at the state capitol complex on 9/12/01, I found it was still closed under security protocols. Apparently, following the fateful events of the day prior, a small aircraft had entered restricted air space near the Capitol and governor’s mansion early that morning, prompting a frenzy of continued heightened security.

Not wanting to return to the hotel, I wandered over to a nearby hangout for rank-and-file legislators. This modest bar/restaurant named Murads’ sat just across a bridge from the state Capitol in an area known as Kanawha City.

Both prior to and following my arrival, several other legislative representatives poured into Murads’. Every television was switched from the customary sports programming to various network news broadcasts. We were glued to the coverage from the prior day and were starting to learn of friends and acquaintances who were still missing and presumed dead.

Due to the audience that frequented Murads’, it was a place where political and policy discussions were welcome and practically customary. However, on that day we sat throughout the dining area, Democrats and Republicans, sharing a feeling of grief, anxiety and of course anger. We knew we were heading to war, but we didn’t yet know with whom or if it was going to be fought in some faraway place or perhaps right here at home.

Not one time did it occur to us — a very politically motivated group — to assign blame. Was this the fault of policies and foreign relations that occurred under the prior Democratic administration or was our current Republican president to blame? I don’t recall any conversation of that ilk popping up that day or in the days that followed. Twenty years ago, that bipartisan gathering shared our grief for the moment and resolve for a future we were committed to forging together.

At some point it became clear our scheduled legislative meetings would be postponed and we needed to return to our home districts. My 3.5-hour drive was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The interstate resembled an Independence Day parade with tractor trailers and passenger vehicles alike flying American flags and displaying messages of hope. Drivers were a little less aggressive and when I stopped for gas, people at the station spoke to strangers as if they were lifelong friends.

We all have unique events in our lifetimes that have a lasting impact. For me, I don’t recall any other moment in my life where we cared more about each other or shared a more common resolve.

Twenty years later, I fear our 9/12/01 selves would not look favorably on our daily actions. Could any catastrophic event occur today that wouldn’t prompt an immediate debate of who’s to blame: Trump or Biden? Terrorists failed miserably in tearing our nation apart. However, a virus has succeeded in doing so in ways the terrorists could have only dreamed of.

Although dealing with a range of emotions and uncertainty, I felt surrounded by people who defined themselves by their commonality, not their political differences. In just two decades, lifelong friends now unfriend each other on Facebook over an election. When we look back at 9/11/01 and say we shall never forget, I hope we think back to 9/12/01, as well — or have we already long forgotten?

Joe DeLong is executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.