"George Washington would be proud to know that we celebrate his birthday every year with a mattress sale." -- Comedian Robert Klein
As a survivor of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I worry about how we will remember that tragic day 50, 100, even 200 years from now.
I worry because our nation does a poor job of commemorating our most historic heroes and events. Our efforts to honor history consistently lead to one of two disappointing outcomes.
Our official holidays have become increasingly commercialized. Consider the relatively recent exploitation of Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Virtually all other anniversaries have been marginalized. Consider how little attention is paid each summer to the July 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, one of humanity's most impressive achievements.
If we can't figure out a way to profit from the most significant events on our nation's calendar, we seem destined to neglect them. We have lost sight of why these events are significant -- the extraordinary actions of courageous Americans and the important lessons from their lives that should inspire future generations.
So how will we recall the grief and heroism of 9/11 in the coming years?
Will Sept. 11 eventually become like D-Day or Pearl Harbor Day, remembered primarily when the anniversary ends with a zero? We've already seen declining attendance at Sept. 11 memorials and read warnings by the 9/11 Commission about a "waning sense of urgency" toward threats of future attacks.
Will Sept. 11 become more like Memorial Day or Veterans Day, used as an excuse to sell cars and furniture? We've also seen controversies surrounding retailers making money off the memory of 9/11 -- selling World Trade Center coins and other products.
The heroes of Sept. 11 deserve better. Thousands of people, including me, owe our lives to these brave men and women. We must find a meaningful way to make sure their sacrifice remains relevant for Americans.
Congress and Presidents Bush and Obama deserve credit for taking a series of steps to make Sept. 11 a national day of service. But not everyone is able to serve. Our Sept. 11 activities must be more universally inclusive.
My suggestion: Make Sept. 11 a National Day of Discussion, where Americans actively seek ways to find common ground across political, religious and cultural divides.
Our efforts could be as small as reconnecting with friends and neighbors. In addition to memorial services, communities could host forums about the long-term impact of 9/11 on anti-terrorism, national security and personal liberty. Schools and libraries could sponsor programs recounting the many selfless acts of uniformed personnel and civilians in and around the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Flight 93.
Since Sept. 11 coincides with the fall campaign season, rival political candidates could appear together at town hall meetings, moderated by neutral observers, to hear the common concerns of their constituents. We could even encourage the most combative news and talk programs to put aside their bombast for one day.
My teenage sons call this "crazy talk," but it's worth a try. The idea comes from an experience soon after Sept. 11, when I was working for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and was asked to lead a tour of the World Trade Center site for Middle Eastern journalists.
As the tour began, it was clear that something was bothering them. After a few awkward minutes, one of the journalists turned to me, his voice barely above a whisper, and asked: "Do you hate us for what happened?"
"Absolutely not," I replied, my eyes filling with tears. I explained that I didn't blame an entire region or religion for crimes committed by a small faction of fanatics. This led to a heartfelt conversation about how Sept. 11 had affected each of us, both personally and professionally. We came away with a far greater appreciation of the fears we all face every day. It was possible only because one person was willing to risk the anger of an American who lost dozens of friends and co-workers in the World Trade Center.
The more we talk and listen to one another, the more we are able to find common ground, the harder it is for terrorists - and other opportunists - to exploit our differences, our fears and our prejudices.
Greg Trevor, executive editor of Rutgers Today, worked in One World Trade Center from 1998 to 2001. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Trevor and his co-workers escaped from Tower One 11 minutes before it collapsed.