Last month, I was reading a newspaper in a coffeehouse in downtown Providence, R.I., when a stranger walked over to me and pointed to a nearby table.
“Would you mind watching my laptop while I run to my car?” he said.
I returned his smile and said, “Sure.”
I must look pretty harmless, because it’s not unusual for strangers to ask me to guard their stuff. Over the years, I’ve kept watch over lots of luggage, purses, newspapers and, on one memorable occasion, a Chihuahua sleeping in a hot-pink pet carrier.
This time felt different, probably because I was thinking about the upcoming anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Every newspaper in the country was planning special commemorations.
For the first time, it struck me as quite remarkable that most Americans still want to trust one another in this post-9/11 world. So many predicted otherwise, you might remember. So many thought our grand experiment was over.
Certainly, we’ve stooped to unthinkable lows. We’ve made a blood sport of stereotyping and targeting Muslims, most of whom are good and decent people. Fear-mongers now dominate talk show airwaves, fueling the worst among us. They are loud, but they are outliers.
True, we have constant reminders of that horrible day. A lot of us think about it every time we throw our shoes into a bin at the airport or produce a passport to cross the Canadian border. But we still get on planes, many of them bound for faraway places. We board trains, buses and subways. We slide into cars and share the highways with thousands of strangers every day.
We fill arenas for concerts and sporting events. We attend political rallies and town hall meetings and knock on strangers’ doors for campaigns and causes. We send our children off to school, to camp and to college. We stroll in shopping malls, feast at crowded festivals and throng to amusement parks. We gather every week in churches, temples and mosques around the country.
In the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks, discussions on talk shows and across kitchen tables focused on what we had lost. Almost 3,000 innocent Americans died that day. I remember thinking for weeks that everyone must be scared to death, but I can speak only for myself: I was terrified.
Frantic phone calls that day — to my daughter, my son, my dad. I remember my father saying the same thing over and over into the phone: Jesus. Jesus, Connie. He was not a religious man, but he told me that day he thought he’d stop by the church where my mother used to sing in the choir.
“Just, you know,” he said. And I did.
I have often wished I’d met my husband sooner than 2003, but whenever I recall how I felt on the day of the attacks, I’m glad I didn’t know him then. He was a member of the House of Representatives at the time, and his two daughters — now my beloved stepdaughters — endured several anguishing hours when they couldn’t reach him. Even now, I fight the urge to walk away from my computer and shove that story out of my mind.
All of us have our own fears, our own worst-case scenarios.
This weekend, as a nation, we remember a moment in America when we huddled with those we loved, reeling from a collective shock. We mourn whom and what we lost, search for evidence of what remains. We will marvel at all that has come to pass, all that we’ve survived, in 10 years’ time. Many of us will bend our heads in prayer.
And then it’s onward, into tomorrow, where most of us will continue to believe in the good intentions of total strangers. How else to avoid becoming our own worst nightmares?
We are Americans.
We may not be fearless, but we refuse to be afraid.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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