Today, all of us will remember the horror and anguish we experienced 10 years ago. Whether we lost loved ones ourselves—family members, union brothers and sisters—or felt the shock of a society that lost nearly 3,000 people and was forever changed, we need no reminding.
Instead, today, I would like to reflect on doors that were opened on Sept. 11, 2001, and what has come of them in the 10 years since.
Working men and women rushed through doors to danger and became America’s everyday heroes. Firefighters, construction workers, nurses and EMTs—all kinds of professionals and volunteers—were there not just on the fateful day but some for weeks and months and even years after. And we swore we would never forget.
Doors opened within us to each other. We came together. We flew the flag. We comforted one another. In our grief, we found the best in ourselves.
What an overwhelming sense of unity we shared, all across our nation. And it was this unity that allowed us to begin healing and rebuilding. There is no time in my memory of a more proud example of what we can accomplish when we work together. Solidarity, the cornerstone of the union movement, flowed through all of us and carried us through.
But other doors opened, too—doors to hate, suspicion of “others” and self-centered greed. Our fear was twisted into something much more dangerous.
The unity that had helped us survive faded as divisiveness took root. I look around today in amazement at just how far apart our nation has become—the endless possibilities that came with our unity have all but vanished.
Just 10 years after 9/11, despite our vows, the public servants, construction workers and others who lost their lives or still suffer with the cancerous remnants of the Twin Towers haven’t just been forgotten. They’ve been vilified. The extremist small government posse has turned them into public enemy No. 1, as though teachers and firefighters, EMTs and nurses and union construction workers ruined America’s economy.
In state after state this year—with the heroism of 9/11 less than a decade behind us—politicians targeted the paychecks, benefits and basic rights of these workers in a rabid campaign to shift government support to tax breaks for the wealthy and already profitable corporations.
Wealthy CEOs, anti-government extremist front groups and frothing talk show hosts—from the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks to the Koch brothers, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads group, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the American Legislative Exchange Council—also pushed open the door to hate.
Make no mistake—setting workers against workers is a highly profitable endeavor. How many times during the vilest state attacks on public workers did we hear the question: “Other people don’t have pensions. Why should he?” Prompting that question required twisting the American psyche—which, by its founding nature, seeks to lift the common good. The appropriate question should have been, “Why doesn’t everybody have a pension?” followed by collective action for retirement security.
We’ve seen the costs of hatred in ill-thought wars, in shameful attacks on immigrants and our LGBT neighbors. We saw it in the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. We saw it in the racism that has found overt and covert expression since Barack Obama began his run for office—from outright declarations of people who said out loud they would never vote for a black man to the ridiculously persistent obsession with our president’s birth certificate. Regardless of his policies or priorities, President Obama is shadowed by the drumbeat of suspicion based on his “other”-ness. And those suspicions are fed and watered constantly by forces that were threatened by his message of “hope and change.”
We’ve seen the cost of greed in the recklessness of financial institutions that created the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression and the devastating jobs crisis that persists today.
But I remember that other door that opened on 9/11—the door to our better selves, to our understanding that we are one and our values require us to care for one another.
That’s what sent 347 firefighters to their death at the Twin Towers 10 years ago. It’s also what sent firefighters to stand with teachers in Wisconsin even though Gov. Scott Walker had exempted them from his attack on public employees. It’s what moves employed people now to demand good jobs for the 26 million Americans who are looking for work. It’s what gives us the courage to take on a crumbling economy and the politicians preaching austerity and ignoring our jobs crisis—to take them on and say, “We are America. We are better than this. And we are one.”
Brothers and sisters, friends, I hope you will join me in marking this solemn anniversary by committing to redouble your activism on behalf of America’s everyday working heroes. We will rise or fall together.