In twenty-four hours, almost everything that has needed saying has been said.
The gruesome first-hand reports. The heartbreaking eulogies. The inspiring stories of heroism, selflessness, and and just plain common decency. The kindly offers of thoughts and prayers. The patriotic expressions of solidarity. The defiant statements that are all variations on the theme of “we will not yield” virtually shouted by the people of Boston, perfectly in keeping with the flinty no-nonsense essentially blue-collar character of the city. That’s all been done and generally done better than I ever could.
Here’s all I have to add to all those stories: remember.
Remember the stories themselves of course, but remember every thought and emotion you experienced as you heard or read them.
It won’t make anything better for the Richards family or the Campbell family or the family of an as-yet-unnamed BU student from China. Their worlds are broken and will never be whole again. We can comfort, we can support, but we can never make anything better for them.
There’s a lot we can make better. There’s a lot of good we can do. It will never make what happened in Copley Square on Monday April 15, 2013 worth it. But there’s a lot of good we can do.
We can do the good we failed to do after September 11, 2001.
For a few moments there in September and into October 2001, we had it. Someone came out nowhere and ripped our guts out and we cried out in anguish and anger but we cried out together. We each turned to the other and said “I’ll get you through this the best I can and you’ll get me through this the best you can.” No one gave one good damn about whether the person whose shoulder you were leaning on was from a different political affiliation, a different race, a different religion, a different sexual orientation, a different anything. That was an American and you needed another American and another American needed you. We treated each other just a touch more decently. We didn’t complain as much about traffic. We said “thank you” at the grocery store a little more. We stood in open-mouthed awe of first responders who not only did the most difficult and dangerous work there was to do but after they did it just shrugged and said “What else was I going to do? This is my job.” We cried out for justice, but we just wanted a piece of the people who did this to us, no one else. The world understood and generally supported us. Just for a second there, we realized that whole magazines about Britney Spears weren’t worth reading and reality shows were garbage and even I figured out that a baseball game was just a freaking game. We treated each other better because the other, no matter who he or she was, was grieving just like we were. We saw the pointless crap for what it was because we were thrown headlong into a world in which we had no idea if we’d ever see the people we loved most again when they merely went to work. Nothing mattered more than telling the people closest to us how important they were to us. We fell in love with our homes and our country, imperfect though they were, maybe for the first time. We wanted to make absolutely sure that cops and firefighters and EMTs knew that we thought they were made of steel, even if we’d sometimes treated them like the enemy in the past.
Every time we felt like being petty or vain or crass or mean-spirited, we remembered everything we saw and heard and read that day and we brought ourselves up short. We remembered the grief. We remembered the inspiration afforded us by the brave and the kindly. We remembered our patriotism. We remembered how we seemed to call one another to do a bit better now, to live out the liberty we knew had been attacked, to be better Americans, better people.
And then we didn’t.
We gave into the fear and the blind rage and the prejudice we swore we wouldn’t succumb to because that’s how our enemies behaved and it would never be us. We came up with the Patriot Act, tolerated warrantless wire-tapping, picked a needless fight with Iraq. The rest of the world saw what we were up to and became alienated. We were fine with profiling anyone with dark skin and a beard who bought an airline ticket, went absolutely bananas because some Muslims wanted to build a mosque kind of sort somewhat near the World Trade Center. Even now, we have the NDAA and drones can take out American citizens just like that in the name of combating terrorism. We went back to being thoroughly uncivil and nasty to each other. We started caring about utter nonsense all out of proportion just like we had on September 10, 2001.
It’s possible that I’m idealizing the late summer and early fall of 2001. I’m not saying we had crossed over into Jordan after 9/11 and then gradually crossed back. But I truly believe for a moment there we were better. I was there. We were there. In the first days and weeks after September 11th, we were responding in as right a way as you can.
In these first hours and days after April 15th, we’re getting it right again.
Open a newspaper, turn on a radio or a television, scroll through your Facebook newsfeed, and you’ll see it. Marthon runners make it 26 miles and then just keep going to Mass General to give blood, living out in a whole new way Christ’s command in the Gospel to go the extra mile. First responders act with courage I know the rest of us don’t have because I can barely believe they have it. Two soldiers home from Afghanistan join in rescue efforts just like they were on regular duty. People offers of meals and hot showers to people who couldn’t otherwise access them. Frantic tweets and text messages zoom all over the country to make sure someone was all right. Candlelight vigils. Tributes from everyone from the Chicago Tribune to Jon Stewart, every bit of it well-earned. Prideful snarls about Boston’s toughness and resiliency, every bit of it iron-clad true.
We’re doing the right things, saying the right things, and reacting the right way. The world is watching Boston and marveling at it.
Remember this. Remember your grief and your inspiration and your pride. Remember how all these stories make you feel and what they make you think. Not just this week. Weeks from now. Months from now. Years from now. When the temptation to sink back into fear and hatred returns with a little time. When we feel like letting ourselves off the hook from the sense of obligation we have now to be better.
Store all this up. Let a little piece of all of us dwell in this time forever. It will hurt. We should let it. Then we’ll remember. Then maybe this time we’ll get it right for than just a few weeks.
May we all remember.