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Heart of the Nation

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The 10th year anniversary of 9/11 prompts many reflections -- of shock and terror; loved ones lost; heroic first responders; intelligence successes and failures; and a nation at war. But 9/11 prompted something else in the American psyche that reflected the heart of our nation -- our instinct to care for one another and to serve community and country.

In the face of a 30-year decline in our civic habits catalogued by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, the attacks of 9/11 prompted an outpouring of compassion that the country sustained for half a decade. One observer noted there were so many donations at Ground Zero so soon that clutter became a problem, hindering the rescue effort. A trucking operation was set up to haul the excess of American compassion away to the areas where it was needed.

President Bush repeatedly called on Americans to serve neighbor and nation, building on what he called the "gathering momentum of millions of acts of kindness and goodness and decency," and provided new opportunities for Americans to serve through the Freedom Corps.

Millions of Americans stepped forward to bolster our disaster response through police and fire departments, community emergency response teams and a medical reserve corps. These efforts would serve the country well after hurricanes, earthquakes and floods, as the country waited on pins and needles for the next wave of terror that thankfully never came.

Tens of thousands responded to new opportunities to serve in AmeriCorps through Habitat for Humanity, City Year and Teach for America.

There were so many applications to the Peace Corps that a new program called Volunteers for Prosperity was created, annually enlisting more than 40,000 Americans to work on issues such as HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa. New efforts sent Peace Corps Volunteers to the Muslim world, and today 22 percent serve in 18 Muslim countries, fostering greater peace and understanding.

Children across America contributed to America's Fund for Afghan Children, raising more than $12 million for clothing, school supplies, books and health kits. Both Presidents Bush and Obama created 9/11 as a day of remembrance and service.

The annual Census showed that volunteering climbed after 9/11 from 59 million Americans to 65 million through the end of 2005. Americans responded to 9/11 with compassion and love.

American historian David McCullough and Senator Lamar Alexander helped shape an American history and civics initiative and Justice Anthony Kennedy created "Dialogues on Freedom" that helped remind millions of young people in our schools about our core values and key lessons from history. We were reminded that the Founders, in talking about the "pursuit of Happiness," weren't referring to just taking care of ourselves, but of a collective effort that involved contributing to our communities and becoming involved in our democracy. Neuroscience showed that we are happiest in deep and fundamental ways when we give back to others.

Central to those efforts was a reminder that in times of trial, Americans have always stepped forward to sacrifice to defend our way of life. The civic reawakening that occurred after 9/11 reflected our best selves -- a volunteer spirit that Ronald Reagan once called a "deep and mighty river that flows through American history" and Bill Clinton said was the "very American idea that we meet our challenges not as isolated individuals, but as members of a true community."

That time when a patina of civility and civic interest covered the invisible hand of pursuing our own interests now seems distant, particularly in hard economic times. But that spirit can be rescued back.

Perhaps one of the best ways to honor this anniversary of 9/11 is to renew our commitment to serving one another at home and abroad, to fulfill the promise of the bipartisan Serve America Act by putting 250,000 Americans in productive work to serve their nation now, and to teach our children that the spirit of service is fundamental to what it means to be an American.

John M. Bridgeland is former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush and is a current member of the White House Council for Community Solutions under President Obama. He is the author of the book, Heart of the Nation: 9/11 & America's Civic Spirit. Americans can find ways to serve by going to www.serve.gov.

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