Mark Bennett: Spirit shown after 9/11 could brighten life in tumultuous 2020

AP/fileFlag: In this Sept. 10, 2019, file photo, visitors to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., participate in a sunset memorial service as the nation prepares to mark the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden plan to attend a truncated ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Fear left us bleary eyed. Uncertainty about the present and future made it hard to sleep. There was no easy solution to a life-or-death situation.

A new normal was ahead.

Nineteen years later, 9/11 sounds like 2020. In 2001, Americans gradually realized their routine activities — from catching a plane to walking into a government building, or entering a stadium for a rock concert or ball game — would never be the same. The economy collapsed. Nest eggs disappeared. Changes came, as a result, along with a bundle of worries and confusion about tomorrow.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has us wondering if the highly contagious COVID-19 can be fully eradicated by a vaccine, if we’ll need to wear face masks and social distance indefinitely, and whether businesses and jobs will survive the economic tailspin.

Indeed, parallels exist between Sept. 11, 2001, and the pandemic of 2020, even though one involved a coordinated terrorist attack that claimed 2,977 lives, and the other a novel virus that has killed more than 190,000 Americans and 3,100 Hoosiers since February.

There is one clear exception. The horrific atrocities of 9/11 were followed by a short-lived, yet deep sense of unity. It wasn’t flawless. People of Middle Eastern descent faced threats and discrimination — wrongs that linger still and that shouldn’t be forgotten. Gasoline prices soared above $5 a gallon that same day, with lines of cars stretching from the pumps into the streets and tempers flaring.

Still, a sense of commonality shined through the disarray. Everyone shared in the confusion and concern, from survivors covered in the dust and soot in New York City to families agonizing over lost or missing loved ones, and millions watching in disbelief the images replayed on TV.

The candlelight vigils, food drives, blood donations, multi-faith prayer gatherings and volunteerism that followed somehow overcame the differences that divide us so intensely in 2020.

At one of several vigils in Terre Haute in the days following 9/11, a 24-year-old man from Indianapolis made a comment that seems unimaginable today. “It’s a time for people of different backgrounds to unite,” he said, according to the Tribune-Star archives. “And in a time of crisis and tragedy, the main thing is not to be scared but to bond as one, as we should every day in life.”

Of course, most of the coping mechanisms Americans used in 2001 aren’t as accessible in 2020. Hugs are rare. Vigils would require participants to mask up and keep six feet apart to prevent coronavirus from spreading.

Empathy, civility and kindness aren’t impossible now, though. It’s doable to put away the disdain and anger toward others who also call this community, state and country home. 

Perhaps for just the 9/11 anniversary weekend, we can adopt some of the spirit from 19 years ago. That was the point of Sept. 11 becoming the annual National Day of Service and Remembrance.

More than 250 people lined up to give blood on Sept. 12, 2001. Coincidentally, the Versiti Blood Center of Indiana outlet at Terre Haute needs donations now.

Statewide, Versiti has lost appointments and blood drives because of coronavirus fears. A Blood Center statement emphasizes that donating blood is safe and precautions are in place. The Terre Haute facility at 2021 S. Third St. is open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. today, and 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Walk-in donations are welcome, but appointments help and can be scheduled by phone at 812-238-2495 or 317-916-5150, or online at versiti.org/Indiana.

Food drives abounded after 9/11. Families hit by job losses in 2020 also are struggling to buy groceries. The Salvation Army at 234 S. Eighth St. in Terre Haute distributes such necessities and is in need of meat items, such as packaged hamburger, hot dogs, lunch meat and bread, as well as hygiene products such as deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrushes. Donors can call 812-232-4081 to scheduled a drop-off donation, or mail in a donation by check.

A listing of other local food pantries is available online at thehaute.org/terre-haute-food-pantries. Also, donations to the Vigo County schools’ Backpack Program can be made through the Vigo County Education Foundation’s website at vigocountyeducationfoundation.org.

Volunteerism jumped nationwide following 9/11, reaching 28.8% of the adult U.S. population, according to Census data crunched by the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute. Volunteerism hadn’t been that high for two decades, and it hasn’t been that high since. The need remains, though. Volunteer opportunities are listed on the United Way of the Wabash Valley website at uwwv.galaxydigital.com/need/ or by calling 812-235-6287.

American flags flew everywhere and flag shops were sold out of them in the fall of 2001. The flags weren’t so much a political statement then as they were a reminder that we were all in it together. Need a flag today? Check your Thursday Tribune-Star for a newsprint version of Old Glory, and hang it in your office or window.

The spirit of that brief sense of unity may be the hardest aspect to recapture. Maybe the best tool is our imaginations. Picture that person from a rival political persuasion or different background or lifestyle. Now, picture them as one of those folks standing nearby, wiping away tears at a candlelight vigil after 9/11. Or, as a 9/11 survivor in New York City, clinging to a stranger as both limp away from the devastation, covered in dust.

Or, simply as a fellow American.

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

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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