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Mark Bennett Opinion

September 12, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Time to recall the strength exhibited by people of this nation in the face of tragedy

TERRE HAUTE — The difference between Sept. 12, 2001, and Sept. 12, 2010, amounts to more than a flip of two digits.

It’s worth remembering how America responded to the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. Most of us watched the unthinkable on TV, as that sunny Tuesday turned into one of the nation’s darkest moments. The killing of nearly 3,000 innocent people by hijacked airliners horrified us. Three-hundred million of us spent the rest of that day and night scanning 24-hour news, consoling kids and each other, apprehensive, hurt and bewildered.

The next morning, the sun came up. And, though staggered by tragedy, the country wasted very little of that day — Sept. 12, 2001.

Two-hundred and 52 people stood in line to donate blood at the Terre Haute Community Blood Center.

“Our mantra today has been, ‘Volunteer, give money, give blood,’” Carol Stevens, executive director of the Wabash Valley chapter of the American Red Cross said then.

The long lines and long wait for a nurse to stick a needle in a vein and draw blood didn’t deter the donors. “We tell them it is going to be four hours. They don’t mind,” said Elise Brown of the Indiana Blood Center. “They want to do it.”

That week, prayer gatherings unfolded across the city, and the United States, in churches and synagogues, as well as the Islamic Center of Terre Haute. A National Day of Prayer and Remembrance was declared. The monsignor at St. Patrick Church said Sept. 11 urged parishioners to “put God first in our lives,” adding that the best way to help the country was to become better people, follow the Ten Commandments and become peacemakers.

At a candlelight vigil in Terre Haute, a 24-year-old Indianapolis man said, “It’s a time for people of different backgrounds to unite. And in a time of crisis and tragedy, the main thing is not to be scared but to bond as one, as we should in every day life.”

Volunteerism rose steadily over the next few years, reaching a decade high in 2003, ’04 and ’05. As young men and women joined ranks of the armed forces as wars began in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the homefront nearly 29 percent of civilians volunteered an average of 52 hours a year in their communities during that three-year stretch.

In the days after 9/11, Terre Haute stores sold out of American flags. Donation and food drives cropped up in community centers, festivals, schools and relief agencies. We promised to count our blessings and respect each other.

The unity lasted … for a while.

It’s unrealistic to expect a democracy as large, diverse and busy as the United States to sustain such fervor. The Constitution and the rights of dissent and free speech for all Americans represent a way of life here. As evidence, last week, an intolerant pastor of a tiny Florida church had President Obama, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. David H. Petraeus, Sarah Palin, Pope Benedict XVI and religious leaders worldwide imploring him to drop his incendiary plan to burn copies of the Muslim Koran. In Congress, the Republicans, now in the minority, have remained in virtual lockstep opposition to the president’s initiatives, trying to satisfy the increasingly loud Tea Party movement. The upcoming November midterm election promises to be a bare-fisted fight for control of Capitol Hill.

Just another day in America.

The impact of 9/11 on our consciences has changed. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week, only 14 percent of respondents said they think about the events surrounding Sept. 11 every day. In 2006, it was 23 percent. In 2002, it was 40 percent.

Even though we’ve lost the we’re-all-in-this-together outlook, it’s not illogical to recall the strength exhibited by the people of this nation nine years ago. Facing the greatest adversity in a generation, the country proudly reminded the rest of the planet that America is made up of people from all races, faiths, ethinicities and nationalities. We tried to become better people.

Nine years later, that effort in that trying moment — fleeting as it may have been — should be revisited by all of us. 

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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