Nineteen years ago this Friday, the unthinkable happened. Nearly 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks on NYC, Washington and Pennsylvania.
How did we, as a nation, react? We did exactly what the terrorists did not want. We stood together, faced our fears together and did what we could to protect ourselves — together.
We accepted restrictions on our freedoms when we traveled — we waited in long lines to be screened. We went barefoot or stocking footed while our shoes were checked. We looked out for each other — “if you see something, say something” was the new catchphrase. If we saw something suspicious, we reported it: a bag standing alone in an airport or a parka left in a train station.
At first, we feared the stranger — but then we learned the truth about terrorism: that it doesn’t have a specific face or nationality. Terrorism has only a purpose: to divide, destroy and kill.
Fast forward to today. The unthinkable has again happened. A worldwide pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands. In our country alone, there are more than 190,000 dead. More than 6 million Americans have been made ill to date. And countless families have been devastated.
We thought 9/11 was horrific — and it was. Who can forget the images of the burning towers collapsing? Who can forget the smoke and dust-filled vistas, with people coated in ash and fleeing for their lives? Who can forget the heroes who risked safety or gave their lives for others?
In the United States today, more than 60 times the number of people killed on Sept. 11, 2001, have died in the space of six months. While the bravery of today’s heroes who risk their lives on the front lines reminds us of the heroes of 9/11, today’s enemy is different. Today we do not face terrorists or an army or hostile group. Today we face a microscopic enemy, a virus. But it is as deadly as any army or any terrorist attack.
So the question is: How are we reacting to this threat? In World War II, we collected metal and rubber for the war effort. We sold war bonds to fund troops. In World War I, groups sewed bandages for soldiers overseas and, at home, we planted victory gardens.
What are we doing today, in this crisis? Many good things, of course — from cheering front-line workers, to wearing masks in the hope of keeping ourselves and others safe from the virus, to checking in by phone or virtual means on neighbors confined to their homes or to care facilities.
Yet, despite all the good things, we are allowing this threat to do what 9/11 could not: we let it divide us. From blaming other countries for the virus or its spread, to politicizing social distancing and wearing of face coverings, to using the pandemic to stir fears about groups or to spread conspiracy theories as we approach a national election, to separating police from those they have sworn to serve and protect, we are letting ourselves be divided.
As Bishop David Ricken has often said, “It is the devil who divides.” An old Aesop fable says that a bundle of sticks cannot be broken as easily as a solitary stick. Jesus himself said, “No town or house divided against itself will stand” (Mt 12:28). Abraham Lincoln, just starting his national political career in 1858, used this Gospel passage in another time when our nation was divided.
As we draw near a pivotal national election, we cannot be a house divided — not when facing the pandemic, not when facing racism, not when facing life issues, immigration, health care, poverty or human trafficking. We must remember that we are stronger together. Despite our varied, and valuable, differences, we must work together to make our nation better, kinder, healthier, more supportive of life.
Don’t let COVID-19 or any of the other strains on our nation — and world — do what the terrorists or 9/11 couldn’t do. Stand together, learn the facts, care about others. By doing so, we will look out for each other and not weaken what has always been the greatest thing about the United States: the ability to form one single nation, under God, out of many individual strengths.