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This month gives the world pause to remember that Tuesday morning ten years ago when, against a glorious clear blue sky, everything changed. What we had only read about in newspapers and heard in reports from distant marketplaces came to America in all its horrifying reality. On that day we saw acts of astonishing courage and selflessness. We heard the 911 calls and voicemails, not of hatred and revenge, but of love, of reassurance. It was not a day when the courageous first responders asked party affiliation or religion or sexual orientation or immigration status. These were simply humans…here and in trouble and in need of help. It was America during its worst, at its best.
I was on my way to the Winfield Festival, in line to board the first flight out of Charlotte, NC the Thursday after 9/11 when the bright yellow “cancelled” suddenly flashed on the screen. I turned to my trusty road manager, Tommy, and said, “How do you feel about driving half way across America?” “Perfect time to do it,” was his immediate reply. And so we headed out.
Through the purple mountains’ majesty and across the fruited plain we traveled, a tableau worthy of Woody Guthrie. All the way we contemplated what had happened and what we might do next. I arrived into the bosom of the Winfield family, sleep-deprived, sore, feeling comforted and welcome. What I saw was what was best about us a people, nation: the home to the stranger, the place where one can go when one has no place else to go, the refuge, the place of possibility.
It’s a remembrance that haunts me these days. In the ensuing decade we’ve become more fragmented and fractious than any of us could have imagined. The fringes of the ideological divide are determining the debate and it seems that craziness is the prevailing pathology. A year ago this date was marked by discussion about a mosque in Manhattan and a wacko burning Korans in Florida. The selflessness and sacrifice of that Tuesday morning could not have felt more distant.
If the goal of terrorism is to instill fear, by any measure I can see, that succeeded post-9/11. For too long we allowed fear to guide everything from the urge to war to forgiving torture to spying on our fellow citizens to suspicion of one another’s religion and country of origin. This is not the first time in our nation’s history we’ve made these mistakes. The anti-foreigner fervor of the early 20th century and the Japanese interment camps of World War II are but two recent examples. Each time we learn a little and forget too much.
I staggered into my motel room at the end of that long day of travel to Winfield and a full day of performing and, like all of America, I turned on the television. It was late Friday night, a day that had been called for as a day of prayer. While the credits were running at the end of a newscast the scenes were of street corners in New York, still alive with stragglers holding pictures of missing loved ones. On one corner, amid a circle of candles, a plaintive sign read, “Follow the light home to me.” It was the last, gentle straw in a long, fraught journey. If that could be the prayer from those in the frontlines, the least we could do is follow, too.
This year, this remembrance I pray that we might, in the words of Abe Lincoln, be “guided by the better angels of our nature” and find that common cause that rallies rather than repels. It’s been a long, dark decade. And darkness never dispels the dark. Only light. And that, I’ll follow.