Just two weeks ago, we paused to remember those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, as the unthinkable happened: America was attacked by a foreign enemy on its own soil. In the aftermath, amid the horrid loss of life, the pierced veil of safety once thought impenetrable, the fear and uncertainty about what was ahead, Americans seemingly became one.
Back then, in spoken and unspoken ways, the values that we held dear as Americans took over in a way that was palpable. We wore our unity on our sleeves. We rallied around those values that unite us — patriotism, our democratic institutions, freedom and protection of our collective well-being.
Fast forward to today, 20 years later, where has that sense of unity gone?
What seminal events have brought out the worse in our behavior where we often choose, unabashedly, baseness over valiance ? When did it start?
The years immediately following 9/11 we were united in spirit and actions to fight against the threat of terrorism to preserve our way of life. But while we were preventing foreign terrorists from attacking us, home grown terrorists were organizing in our midst.
Our politics was not filled with virulent rancor as we have today. Compromise was still possible between the two political parties. Peddling lies and declaring fake news as real news had not become a central part of the public discourse.
Little did we know that so many Americans would accept and fall victim to the lies that have rolled and continued to roll off the lips of leaders, and that the use of distorted news from many media outlets and voices would become commonplace.
Also, wedged between the unity that occurred after 9/11 and the crippling divisiveness of today was the election of America’s first black president.
On the surface that was a ray of hope. Many saw the election of President Barack Obama as America moving into a post-racial era.
Oh boy, were we wrong.
Since Obama’s election in 2008, race relations have deteriorated and many Americans believe that the gains made over decades have been lost.
Even though Obama was elected for a second term, partisan politics in Congress worsened, with Republicans openly expressing that their goal was to defeat whatever Obama proposed. Most times, they succeeded.
Meanwhile, all across America, more disunity was brewing and gaining a foothold fueled by lies and conspiracy theories.
Pervasive among the festering dissension is the pernicious conflict and discord along racial lines, with birthers putting a national face on the issue by claiming Obama was not born here, in an attempt to make his black presidency illegitimate.
The election of Donald Trump became the catalyst and embodiment of the other America — the silent America with many grievances, primarily along racial and economic lines. During the Trump presidency the manifestations of “Them vs. Us” became manifold whether grounded in truth or not.
For example, the unfounded peddling of the belief that immigrants were responsible disproportionately for rapes and the increase in crimes occurring in the United States became a mantra of which the vestiges have stuck in the minds of many.
This spreading cancer of discord has metastasized into other areas such as how patriotism is defined. Brandishing white supremacy, disrespecting the flag, undermining, and attacking the foundation and institutions of our democratic form of government are increasingly becoming the norm.
Another perennial divide is the continuing debate about what constitutes good gun control measures vs. Second Amendment rights. It has increased gun ownership among citizens and criminals alike that is unmatched by any other civilized nation in the world, resulting in higher rates of gun violence and gun deaths than any other civilized country.
Currently, we are living one of the greatest disagreements everyday: How do we come together to stop the catastrophic costs of the COVID pandemic.
Americans seem to be at odds about nearly everything.
Where have the values gone that once united us and gave us a common sense of purpose despite those social, economic and political areas that still need improvement?
We seem to have forgotten that unity in purpose can be achieved amid differences and imperfections. It occurs in many aspects of our daily lives.
Some would argue that the disunity that is so visible today has always been there, existing just beyond a façade of one America. That the United States of America has never been a country of states that shared binding values and principles, perhaps except when we were at war, and not always then.
Today, more and more, it seems we have only been united superficially, symbolically. Deep down, one must ask do the majority of Americans believe in values that foster a common humanity afforded all citizens regardless of race, religion, economic status, gender, or age.
More so than ever, America looks like a nation that is losing its identity and is struggling to define its core values and a path forward.
It is left up to us as Americans to uphold and live those values that will change the course of disunity that we are currently on.
But do we even know, anymore, what those values are, which most Americans could agree upon today, that will bind us together as a nation?
Janice Ellis is a contributing commentator for the Missouri Independent, which first published this essay.