Last weekend, my family and I went to visit the new 9/11 Memorial located at Ground Zero.
Three things were striking:
First, is the scale of the disaster. Two huge pools -- each filling the acre-sized area that once held the foundation of the Twin Towers -- form the centerpiece of the Memorial. They are lined by large flowing waterfalls -- and surrounded by the stone-inscribed names of the thousands who died.
It's easy to forget the vastness of the footprint of the Twin Towers until you see it stretching out in front of you -- and realize how small you feel in comparison.
And the scale of the calamity is brought home by the massive size of the structures that rise around it. The new One World Trade Center building -- which will one day rise to 104 stories topped by a 408-foot spire that will make it a symbolic 1,776 feet tall -- is now only 80 stories complete. But it already gives you a sense of the scale of the towers that collapsed 10 years ago. They were simply gigantic; their collapse -- cataclysmic.
Second, as you read the names of the hundreds of fire-fighters and other first-responders who died as they raced up those towers to rescue others, you can't help but be struck by the nobility and heroism of those men and women -- and of the tens of thousands of fire-fighters and police and EMT's who risk danger every day to help their fellow citizens.
It brings into stark relief the Right Wing's outrageous attempts to make public employees into greedy villains as they have tried to strip them of collective bargaining rights. Standing at Ground Zero, it is almost beyond belief that the Right has tried to hold public employees responsible for the fiscal crisis that actually resulted from the irresponsible speculative orgy that led to the collapse of the financial market in 2008.
Not a stone's throw from Ground Zero lie the Wall Street headquarters of many who actually did cause the Great Recession. Many of those who are responsible spend their days there focused like a laser on only one thing -- how to make themselves unspeakably rich. Many are speculators who do not contribute one iota to the well-being of others, but are rewarded by our society beyond the wildest dreams of the men and women who raced up the Twin Towers without a thought of their own lives in order to save others.
The values of those first responders -- the commitment of someone's life to the welfare of others, the welfare of the entire community -- those are the values that have always made America great at its finest moments. Just a short walk from Ground Zero, the Occupy Wall Street Movement is demanding that those true American values define our future.
The spirit of the soldiers who stormed the beach at Normandy, of the civil rights workers who risked arrest at the segregated lunch counters in South Carolina, of labor organizers who work their hearts out to help farm workers fight for dignity and a living wage, and the EMT's who speed to the site of an accident victim to save a life -- that is the spirit that we all know in our hearts gives each of us -- and our country -- significance and meaning.
Wealthy Wall Street speculators may build their own personal monuments -- buildings emblazoned with their names -- or private homes the size of hotels. But when it comes time for societies of people to build monuments to those who we all consider heroes, it is those whose lives have shown their dedication to others that inspire us.
Finally, there is something about the 9/11 Memorial that not only inspires us -- but demonstrates the true nature of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism is not about moral superiority. It's not about being more committed to justice or freedom or equality or economic progress than our fellow human beings.
Around the pools that once defined the footprints of the twin towers are the names of the victims who died on the planes, in the towers and at the Pentagon that day:
Kelly, Vokosa, Kumar, Sou-Wen, Perez, Trinidad, Maio, Rothenberg, Pakat, Jian, Habib, Ching, Lee, Parandkar, Iskandor, White, Ivan, Tsou, Ricardelli, Jean-Pierre, Kloepfer, D'Alladra, Shay, Saducha -- and thousands of others.
The people who died that day had ancestors from every corner of the globe. They were committed to every major religious tradition. They were full-fledged American citizens whose ancestors had been here for generations, and newly arrived undocumented workers who put in hours each day at some of the least desirable jobs at the World Trade Center. They were visitors from other countries -- here to do business -- or more likely to visit some relative or friend who was born in their native land. They were Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists -- you name it.
No other country on earth has managed to incorporate such a wide array of ethnic and religious traditions into a functioning, secular, democratic society.
America has is faults and shortcomings. Our society is still shot through with injustice and economic inequality. It is still filled with prejudice, and in many ways our decision-making continues to be dominated by a tiny economic elite. Even now, we must make the decisions necessary to assure that economic opportunity is truly available to our next generation.
But what continues to give America such exceptional promise -- what still makes it a shining city on the hill -- is the enormous strength of a society forged out of every conceivable component of the human race.
If you walk just a few blocks south of Ground Zero, you can see Ellis Island where so many different immigrants first entered America. From Battery Park, Ellis Island appears to be right next to the Statue of Liberty, which symbolized the hope that prompted those immigrants to tear out their roots and completely replant themselves in a new and foreign land.
America can still be a beacon that shows what the world of the future can be -- a multi-cultural society where everyone's ethnicity and traditions are celebrated. A society where everyone -- and every group -- is respected, and conflict is settled without resorting to arms. A society where opportunity is only bounded by imagination and energy, but never by wealth or ethnic background.
Some on the Right have tried to memorialize 9/11 by sowing hatred and division, by whipping up fear and intolerance, by charging that all Muslims were at fault -- notwithstanding that many of those who died in the Towers, and who ran up the steps as first responders themselves -- practiced the Muslim faith. Fear and intolerance have nothing to do with true American values.
Next time you're in New York, go to the 9/11 Memorial. Feel for yourself the magnitude of the tragedy, and the heroism and commitment of the first responders. And then run your fingers over the engraved names of some of the thousands of Americans -- and others -- who died that day. As you do, you will feel, and see, the many separate strands of the human story that have all found their way to our shores -- and when woven together define the true meaning of American exceptionalism.