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Recalling my America before 9/11

Gary Caruso | Thursday, September 10, 2009

“I want my America back!” That common cry nationwide from many attending health care town-hall meetings last month epitomized emotional shouting sessions. Their demonstrations against so-called socialized health care proposals or publicly financed medical treatment alternatives – described by others as disruptive obstruction – allowed civil discourse to dissolve into chaos. Such sad moments should give us pause today, on the eighth anniversary of the deadly attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Is America really much different now than from yesterday, a decade ago or even a lifetime past?

All four of my grandparents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s. Their visions of America were of equal opportunities, both economic and social. Despite posted signs that read “No WOPS need apply,” my grandfathers labored on the railroad lines and in the coal mines, sometimes without pay for a full day’s work because the mine yielded shale rather than coal. Yet in their America, after enduring abject poverty in the Great Depression, they successfully raised children whose own children could and did work in the White House for the President of the United States.

America today is a time of angry social transition not unlike the period following our Civil War. For the first time in our nation’s history, an African-American sits in the Oval Office advocating togetherness and a common national character. Yet for many, his presence marks an end of their America. To them, the America they grew to know is shattered, and they are frightened. It is as psychologically shocking to them, and as sudden a change, as past generations faced with the stock market crash of 1929, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassinations during the 1960s or most recently, the 9/11 attacks eight years ago. These frightful people know not how to cope in a society they believe has spun out of their control, but how to vocally vent their frustrations.

Our society seems to stand on full oxymoron alert these days as Americans yearn for the past yet cling onto the present for fear that it too will quickly slip by them. It is as though they are trying to grasp any available limb while being quickly swept down a swollen creek bed. For them, change exposes their fears. Uncertainty isolates their warmth from others. Greed murders all of their human compassion. Many act out with no regard for a greater purpose, one that should unite us rather than morph into disruptive shouting matches at public gatherings. Above all, they view President Obama as the symbol of their consternation, the focus of their opposition.

Political parties or ideological philosophies aside, the question we should ask before any of us feels a sense of loss is, “What do I truly love?” Someone once said that where his heart was concerned, he was God. In other words, a quest of the heart in its purest form is a journey of truth. The late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy revealed in death through his writings a steadfast loyalty to help others – despite his own human excesses or personal faults – to make government work for others, especially those for whom little had been given. His love of life earned a friendship with and co-sponsorship from conservative Utah Senator Orin Hatch to use the government to provide health care for impoverished, uninsured children. Together they checked and balanced each other to pass laws with an eye on the greater good over political expediency.

We are not necessarily summoned to make personal sacrifices like the Greatest Generation in World War II or our active military personnel overseas today. But we are all called upon to care for our neighbors as we would want to be treated. It is simple to define what can be easily opposed, but rare in today’s fast-paced news cycles for many to sail their moral compasses based on what is best for others. Today we stand on the shoulders of past American generations, but make no sacred effort to solidify that foothold for others who will follow.

My personal America has always been beyond the sunset, off somewhere into tomorrow where the possibilities are limitless. I do not cement my feet in current or past comforts because I know conditions always evolve with death, destruction, birth and building. So while our surroundings or presence may constantly change, America will not if we hold our values high without wavering … even in the face of adversity like the 9/11 attacks. Therefore, let us pause today to remember the victims of 9/11 and honor the first responders who valiantly sacrificed their lives during their rescue efforts. They embodied the America that never changes, nor can be lost.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a

communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s

administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be

contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.