9 11, Harvey and Irma – The worst of times, the best of times?

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE September 11, 2017

"America is great, because she is good."

Alexis De Tocqueville

Around 8:30 on the morning of 9 11 - a bright, sunny, and beautiful summer morning, none of the people going to work in the southern part of Manhattan would have expected their lives were to be forever altered in a matter of minutes, or soon ended, or that their survival might depend upon the kindness of strangers. After 9 am, the same would apply to folks at the Pentagon, and on a flight over Pennsylvania. It was the worst of times, and yet revealed the best in us during the aftermath.

For most Americans, 9 - 11 was a flashbulb moment, not unlike the JFK or Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, or President Reagan shooting, or the Challenger explosion. You knew where you were, whom you were with, and what you were doing. Moreover, it was, and still is intensely personal. Our nation was attacked, our safety violated. 9 - 11 was an act of war, committed by combatants unlike any we have faced in modern times. For those of us in the terrorism and preparedness professions, it was more than an affront to our country, it was a reminder we collectively failed, allowing this heinous crime against humanity to reach our shores, resulting in thousands of strangers, most of whom our fellow countrymen, being murdered.  For many of us, it took the lives of friends and colleagues. I can still picture the camaraderie we faced in life and their names on the memorial in death.

9 11 led to the creation of enterprises dedicated to protecting the nation. Some have worked well, others still evolving. During the months post 9 11 when terrorism infrastructures were expanded, and collaborations across performance cultures were growing, I was given numerous challenge coins over the years from agency directors and leaders in the preparedness arena. All are special, and representative of people who shared the sensibility of honor, code, commitment. The coins moreover are instructive. On one is imprinted "Never again." The words "never again" and "never forget," are more than the rah rah of bumper stickers or rallying cries. They represent our national commitment, our social compact, and our pledge of honor to each other.  

"Honor" - there's a word you don't hear too often in contemporary society. Some might suggest it is an arcane notion in our techno driven, immediate gratification world. But it is what our founding fathers and mothers pledged. It was guaranteed with their lives. It is how the men and women who responded to 9 11, to Boston Marathon Bombing, to Oklahoma City and elsewhere, lived their lives. It is how my former student acted as an intern in New Orleans trying to rescue patients during Katrina, while a handful of crazies tried to shoot at, and steal from health care professionals. Honor - without it society dies. In 2017, do we even teach this concept or try to connect our history to our future? Alternatively, do we now need tragedy and deprivation to be the labor and delivery room of honor?

Last week, not unlike the events of 9 11, the news media frequently introduced stories of heroism, sacrifice, generosity, life and death struggles, and the efforts of mere mortals - ordinary people rushing in where angels dare to tread during and after Hurricane Harvey ravished the Houston Metroplex. There, too, was honor. And as of this writing, there will be similar stories of people risking their lives for strangers during and in the aftermath of the latest hurricane to hit our shores - Irma. From all over the country Americans are banding together, trying to raise money for the victims, or donate provisions to help people rebuild their lives and homes. We are a great nation, because we are inherently a good people. That is the legacy, and the history, the very nature of America we ought to be teaching to the next generation. However, are we?

With all the divisiveness going on in certain parts of the country, and sadly for political gain more than the benefit of all Americans, perhaps 9 11, Harvey, and Irma can remind us of a time mostly all of us came together, were a little bit kinder, a little less selfish. When we opened doors for strangers, or helped people with their luggage, we stood up and relinquished our seats when older persons arrived on the metro, we shared a meal with a homeless person, or just merely smiled instead of frowned, or listened instead to of ignored a fellow traveler to the grave, as Dickens might have observed. For a few months, we were more unified, more considerate, more patriotic, and more appreciative of our blessings as Americans, as family members, as individuals.

In the midst of calamity - whether at the hand of nature or terrorist or other disaster - it is not uncommon for strangers to step up and show inordinate acts of kindness and charity, even folks in feuding mode or disinclined to neighborliness have been known to share untold levels of generosity and compassion. Whether during Christmas when people are more charitable, or in the aftermath of a tragedy, most people wonder why we cannot be our better angels, or why does it take an horrific event to bring people together.

It has been refreshing to watch the news where people around the country - from politicians and celebrities to emergency responders and NGO/charities are, albeit briefly, setting aside partisanship to think about others. Many of which are raising awareness of, and caring about folks in harm's way, without considering whether those imperiled are in a red state or blue state, or whether rich or poor, urban or rural, or whether skin was black, white, red, brown, yellow or polka dotted. 

Not surprisingly, there are those who try to make political hay, or drag emergencies into some partisan bully pulpit, or issue about race, ideology, wealth inequality or Lord knows what.

There are those who would rewrite history, by tearing down monuments, removing books and movies from the public sensibility because they might offend (seriously - Huck Finn?) or poisoning our youth with shameful revisions about our founding to 9 11 to the present. Dangerously these rewrites are presented putatively for some utopian, benign motivation, but in truth serve far darker, destructive purposes to un-tell the American experience. The aftermath of 9 11 showed how America rebuilds - Freedom Tower is a monument to an honorable nation. Nevertheless, one building, magnificent though all 1776 feet of it is, is not enough to honor the memory or inspire the future.

We, all of us who love this country must try to  foster in the imaginations of our youth the heroics, trials, and triumphs required to turn a wilderness continent into the most inspirational and powerful nation ever known in the modern world - the United States.  There are those who would try to make us a disunited state; and they will succeed if we allow people to tear down our monuments, silence our discourse, and remove books representative of America's evolution. Those who would tear down our nation, and our national monuments to Jefferson and Washington, and others, are no less toxic to our nation than the terrorists who tore down the twin towers. The enemy within is always more dangerous than the foe from outside.

History is not always written by the victorious. Sometimes history is written by observers; people who survived the battles. They experienced the losses, the triumphs, and lived to tell the tale. That honor, and responsibility has fallen on the likes of you and me; people who experienced the horrors and humanity of 9 11 that occurred nearly a generation ago.

Although it seems like yesterday, it was 16 years ago. Many of our associates, coworkers, or children of friends were mere youngsters when the calculated evil of soulless creatures deliberately targeting civilians was perpetrated on New York City, The Pentagon, and in the skies over what is now hallowed ground in rural Pennsylvania. The children of my colleagues - brave men and women, who perished trying to rescue people at ground zero, would just now be coming into their own adulthood. Their memories supported and supplanted by a dizzying array of messages over the last 16 years.

Among those messages are from those who would have you believe America is not, nor ever was a near miracle of democracy and hope for the world. There are those who would have you believe 9 11 represented America's comeuppance for global missteps. There are those who would have you believe 9 11 was culmination if not catalyst of America's looming downfall. And, there are those, like DeTocqueville, like the FSM community, like most true patriots, like me, who would ask you to believe 9 11 represented America's, Americans finest hour, revealing our true mettle, our true spirit, as a people.

Harvey has visited great destruction on one of our largest metroplexes - Houston - did not triumph over the spirit of Houstonians any more than 9 11 dimmed the light of New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, or those in the DC area, let alone Americans. Nor will Irma have the last word when she finally dies out, in spite of the devastation in her path. Like the Battle of Britain, or 9 11, these events reveal our finest hour.

Americans - unlike any breed of people....we have been called continentals, rustics, patriots, an independent culture. Self-sufficient, yet dependent upon each other in a form of national camaraderie, transient though it often is, we come together. That is my America, my United States. And that, perhaps more than any other legacy of 9 11 or Boston, or Harvey, or Irma, is the lesson we must teach our children.

9 11, Harvey and Irma - The worst of times, the best of times? We can't stop every bad event or tragedy from happening. But we can decide how we will react to the challenges that face us. Whether Baltimore or Ferguson, Houston, or Florida, 9 11 or Patriot's Day Bombing. Each event had a report card, and sent a message. In some, we destroyed, where uniting would have been better. The choices are simple. They usually are in life or death situations. We can rebuild or we can destroy. We can divide, or unite. Whatever course we decide, our children are watching.  Let us pick a course we can be proud of what we teach them. You and I are the living classroom of history. It is 9 11 again; can we make it the best of times?

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    


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