USA Today, September 7, 2011
The American family: frayed, but united
In the decade since the 9/11 attacks, our nation has bickered, bellowed and
raised fists...while joining hands.
By Bruce Kluger
writer Jeffrey Kluger (disclosure: my big
brother) makes an acute observation about
the durability of family.
"A household is … a parliament of
personalities that are forever in motion—and
often in conflict," he writes. "As siblings, we
may fight and sulk and fume, but by nighttime
we still return to the same twin beds in the
same shared room (and) peace is made."
vouch for that constant ebb and flow of familial alliances—that's what being a sib is
about. But I also feel that way about being an American. Because if there's one
thing that we as a nation have demonstrated over the past decade, it is this very
resilience—this ability to bicker and cohere, to bellow and console, to raise fists and
Ten years ago this Sunday, 19 men in four jets tore a fiery hole in history and, in
doing so, dealt a staggering blow to our national family. Rocked by our
uncharacteristic vulnerability to attack, and shocked by this first such aggression on
our mainland since the Revolutionary War, we instantly huddled together like
brothers and sisters do in times of peril. Most remarkably, we allowed ourselves to
The mayor of New York became our national symbol of heroism, not just for his cool-
headedness in a time of crisis, but for his wiser, almost parental candor in telling us
the truth. "The number of casualties," Rudy Giuliani said on that first awful day, "will
be more than any of us can bear."
President Bush stood atop the still smoldering pile of rubble at Ground Zero,
megaphone in hand, and reminded the world that our nation was "on bended knee
in prayer" for those we lost. That kind of compassionate faith cannot be overstated.
Even the icons of our popular culture offered a sense of comfort. "Any fool can blow
something up," comedian Jon Stewart told his audience through unexpected tears
nine days after the attack. "But to see these firefighters, these policemen, people
from all over the country, literally with buckets, rebuilding—that's extraordinary. And
that's why we've already won. … It's democracy. They can't shut that down."
Much has been discussed about this exceptional way that our nation coalesced in
the wake of 9/11. And much has been discussed about how we just as quickly
splintered. Stewart would soon become the unlikely torch-bearer of the left. New
York's hero mayor would embark on a presidential campaign that drew not on the
sense unity he had once instilled, but on a more conventional, unappetizing
partisanship. And our president, wielding a different kind of megaphone, would
marshal our nation into two wars, igniting a debate so fierce that it continues today.
Even Ground Zero was not immune to the turmoil. After the wreckage was cleared,
bitter seeds of resentment would be planted in that sacred soil as we fought over
what kind of shrine should rise from such hallowed ground—its symbolism, its
practicality, its purpose.
So, yes, the past 10 years have been fraught with discord. And yet, isn't this
precisely the way America has always conducted her messy business? Isn't this
exactly how families—especially the closest of them—ultimately survive?
I'd like to believe that for all the acrimony that has arisen from Sept. 11, our nation
has attained a greater depth of character. We saw this in the strength of those
Pentagon employees who, even before the sickening hole in their building had
been patched, pulled in tighter to their desks and worked with that much more
conviction to ensure the protection of our liberty.
We saw it in the selflessness of those passengers on Flight 93—the lone aircraft
that did not find its target that day, but instead plummeted into a field in rural
Pennsylvania—whose acts of bravery and grace aboard that jet continue to inspire
And we saw it in the perseverance of the Ground Zero laborers, who rose above
the politics and passion buried in that battered 16-acre parcel of land to ensure
that water now flows in the twin memorial pools; and that the bronze parapets that
surround them now bear the names of nearly 3,000 fellow Americans, forever
engraving their memory in our national conscience.
On the evening of this July 4, I witnessed an amazing sight. I was aboard a boat in
New York Harbor, preparing to watch the fireworks with friends, when our captain
slowed the engines and swung our bow east. With the Statue of Liberty directly
behind us, we gazed silently at 70 of the planned 104 illuminated stories of the new
1 World Trade Center, piercing the night sky with a soft golden hue. The
juxtaposition of those two structures—a symbol of freedom at our backs, a rising
skyscraper in our sights—was breathtaking. Stewart was right: We rebuild.
It has been a long and contentious 10 years, but I choose to heed my brother's
assurance about the enduring bond among brothers and sisters. For all our
quarreling, we of the American family do eventually return to that same shared