“The sky was falling and streaked with blood.
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher.”
— Bruce Springsteen, “Into the Fire” from “The Rising”
I opened the course I am teaching this semester on international security policy with a discussion about Sept. 11, 2001. It is difficult to believe that it has been 14 years since that fateful day when our country was attached. Not since Dec. 7, 1941 have we experienced an attack of such magnitude on our homeland. And this time it was not a state attacking us, but a non-state actor. The world changed on 9/11.
It is even more shocking to note that most of the students in my class were 4 years old when this tragic day fell upon our country. I think most of us who can, will remember the sense of disbelief, outrage, violation and venerability we felt that morning as the twin towers crumbled into dust and the Pentagon was in flames. I also remember the sense of pride and awe I felt when I learned that the passengers and crew on the fourth flight had fought to the death — given their lives so that others might not be harmed.
Sadly, most first-year college students have no memory of that day. What is lost in this blank is a memory of unusual national unity and pride. No matter one’s political party, creed, race, gender or national origin, all of us who consider ourselves citizens of the United States were united that morning and for quite a few months that followed.
Today, most of our young people have grown up in a country that’s at war. What they remember most now are the vitriolic conflicts that we witness everyday between Republicans and Democrats — the name-calling and anger between the left and the right. The terrible recent scenes of violence — police against citizens, citizens against police and citizen against citizen. Racial conflicts and tensions over who is really an American dominate the memories of young people.
The presidential election is 15 months away. Fifteen months! Will we have to witness continued political nastiness and national disunion for 15 more months?
Both sides seem intent on throwing as many attention and media grabbing hyperbole cluster bombs at each other as possible. What does this do for the tone, setting and understanding of politics and national (dis)unity that our young people experience? Where is the reasoned measured discourse about policy and solutions that we so desperately need in our country? With the scorched earth campaigns of the left and the right heating up more and more, what will eventually heal our nation and bring us together as a people, as a community? After all of this political fighting is over in November 2016, where will the hope be for common ground?
Presidential candidates Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are both formidable political animals. If they each emerge as their party’s nominees, will either one of them ever be able to govern? Particularly if, in the end, what they leave us with is a “house divided” and a deeper political animosity in our civil society than we have perhaps ever seen? If so the consequences may be catastrophic for our nation and for future generations.
I know many of you feel we are already there — in a condition of irreparable disunity. Democracy is rough and tumble. Politics is a knife fight.
I hope, however, we have not reached the point of irreparable disunity, and I pray that it does not take another major catastrophe or another attack on our nation to bring our country back together. I remember Benjamin and Jeremy Wise — two brothers, Arkansas natives and Hendrix alumni — who gave their lives in Afghanistan for the defense and unity of our nation. Let us not waste their sacrifice.
During this long season and in these campaigns for the presidency and other political offices, we desperately need voices of reason and unity. A wise man once said, “You have to live your way into new ways of thinking and living in community because you cannot think yourself into new ways of living and being in community.”
Our best thinking has gotten us into this state of division. God help our nation if we do not begin to witness acts of leadership and hear statements that signal a renewed hope for and commitment to unity. Bruce Springsteen also said, “What if what you do to survive kills the things you love? Fear’s a powerful thing. It can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God filled soul, and fill it with devils and dust!”