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9/11 Twenty Years Later, and the Meaning of Fierce Unity

My old boss and friend Van Jones likes to say that America has always been two things. On one hand, you have America’s ugly founding reality. There was slavery and the genocide of indigenous people and the exclusion of women. Then there was America’s beautiful founding dream – the idea of a multiracial, multicultural, democratic republic where everyone can thrive.

I’ve lived these two Americas. I’m a former skateboarding, anarchist protester ready to fight The Man. But I am also the child of two immigrants who came to America from India precisely because they believed deeply in that beautiful founding dream. My whole life is the story of trying to hold these two realities together.

Van explains the difference between cheap patriotism and deep patriotism.

I find this helpful in navigating the many emotions I feel as we approach the 20th anniversary of the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001. The loss of life, the imagery, the piercing surprise of what took place—seared that day into our collective memory it became a national trauma, one that did not end on September 12.

What happened that day in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia was tragic. The immediate response, however, was beautiful. Neighbors rallied around each other. Political leaders found common ground. Newspapers around the world mourned alongside America. It was the dream of what America could be.

By September 15th, the ugly had set in. That day, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, was planting flowers in front of his Mesa, Arizona gas station when he was murdered by a man who called himself a patriot. My friend Valarie Kaur calls the gas station where Balbir died “the ‘second’ Ground Zero — for all the people who have been killed or harmed by the way our nation responded to 9/11.”

In the years that followed, we witnessed further hate crimes against Black and Brown people, sank into quagmires in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, that cost countless American, Iraqi, and Afghan lives, built a mass surveillance state, and militarized our police until local neighborhoods felt like they were under military occupation.

I moved out of New York the summer before 9/11, and felt all of this – from the highs to the lows – deep in my bones. The sense of common cause was intoxicating, refreshing. Yet there I was, watching the war on “terror” ramp up, watching people who look like me being detained even though they shared the most American dream of all–the same dream of my own father: a better life for their children.

Which was the real America? The beautiful dream of union right after September 11? Or the ugly reality of war and hate crimes? The lives and trust destroyed? Or the crowds of all colors, belting out “God Bless America” at baseball games?

Both, of course, as difficult as that is. Because America has always been two things, and our task has always been to bring them closer together. We are a rainbow people on a mission. America was founded long ago, but each generation is called to “re-found” it – to begin anew. To build an America that is a little bit further from that ugly founding reality, and a little bit closer to that beautiful American dream.

Truly honoring September 11 means holding the resulting beauty and ugliness together. We should hew tightly to that teasing experience of togetherness, when it felt like our tribal loyalties and political divisions were, for a moment, trivial next to the weight of our grief. And we must also look, clear-eyed, unafraid, at the damage that resulted.

We experienced a fleeting glimpse of unity right after September 11th. Twenty years have shown it to be a rather cheap unity, built on the shifting sands of wartime jingoism and neglect for our neighbors. Cheap unity papers over differences and builds bipartisan agreement at the expense of those who are down and out. It makes a lot of people feel comfortable and leaves a whole lot of underdogs feeling forgotten. It substitutes shows of patriotism for truth-telling, and stereotypes of what it means to be “American” for the way more complicated reality.

Yet the days after 9/11 gave us a glimpse of unity all the same. It should not cause us to abandon the idea of unity, but to strive for something better — not cheap unity, but fierce unity.

Fierce unity does not ignore difference. Fierce unity means laboring for all that America could be. It is not uniformity or elite bipartisanship. It is everyday people risking being uncomfortable by finding common ground with people who disagree with you on everything. It means starting with the people who are hurting the most, even if they are not on our side politically – and then looking for unlikely allies and commonsense solutions to actually make things better. Fierce unity does not search for political opponents but for places where common pain can turn into common purpose.

Fierce unity starts with our common humanity, celebrates diversity, confronts common problems, and dares to dream of an America on the other side of systemic racism, the climate crisis, mass incarceration and economic inequality.

None of this is easy, but it gets me up every day excited to go to work at Dream Corps. I truly believe that in our work finding common ground on climate, closing prison doors, and diversifying the high-tech economy, we are showing what fierce unity can do. We can remember the ugly reality, while striving together for a beautiful dream.

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