05/20/2014 02:09 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Defining America's Exceptionality: The Unveiling of the 9/11 Museum


As the 9/11 Memorial Museum opens to the public, it's good to reflect on America; who we are and why, and perhaps, to rethink negative opinions about immigration and real racial equality.

On September 11, 2001, America changed forever as we came under direct attack. Nearly 3,000 people from 90 countries died that day, and the world took the measure of American people. Thirteen years later, the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened with a dedication ceremony attended by America's leaders and its extraordinary citizens.

While the World Trade Center's Twin Towers imploded that day, survivors made their way out of the buildings in a quiet, orderly manner; instead of stampeding and trampling each other in a panic, they helped each other even when they, ultimately, could not help themselves.

Pres. Obama described the heroism of The Red Bandana Guy. "In those awful moments after the South Tower was hit, some of the injured huddled in the wreckage of the 78th floor. The fires were spreading. The air was filled with smoke. It was dark, and they could barely see. It seemed as if there was no way out.

"And then there came a voice -- clear, calm, saying he had found the stairs. A young man in his 20s, strong, emerged from the smoke, and over his nose and his mouth he wore a red handkerchief.

"He called for fire extinguishers to fight back the flames. He tended to the wounded. He led those survivors down the stairs to safety, and carried a woman on his shoulders down 17 flights. Then he went back. Back up all those flights. Then back down again, bringing more wounded to safety. Until that moment when the tower fell.

"They didn't know his name. They didn't know where he came from. But they knew their lives had been saved by the man in the red bandana." The man was 24-year-old Welles Crowther, who died that day."

His mother Alison Crowther said:

Welles believed that we are all connected as one human family; that we are all here to look out for, and to care for one another. This is life's most precious meaning; it is our greatest hope that when people come here (to the Museum) and see Welles' red bandana, they will remember how people helped each other that day, and we hope that they will be inspired to do the same in ways both big and small. This is the true legacy of September 11th.

As the dust settled that awful night and for nights afterward, America's streets were quiet except for candlelit prayer vigils; no rioting in the streets, faces contorted with rage, and shouts for vengeance. Americans of every age, creed and color from every corner of the world came together to mourn and to care for each other and, four years later, a school in Afghanistan grew out of the rubble.

Ada Rosario Dolch was the principal of a nearby high school where educators encouraged leadership and public service. Her sister Wendy worked in Tower One of the Trade Center.

"My whole life has been about educating children," said Ada. "After Wendy died, I was with friends and said, 'Imagine if we went to Afghanistan and we built a school there. What a kick in the head to Osama bin Laden!

"With the help of my friends, four years later the school was opened in the Province of Herat. About 200 boys and girls came to study, and since then many, many more; all of them entrusted with education and their country's future. There can be beauty out of the ashes; it's hard work, but it can be done," said the educator.

That's the American spirit.

In America, in other life-shifting events such as Pres. Obama's two elections, legalization of gay marriage, tremendous economic disparity, a do-nothing Congress, greed and economic near-disaster including joblessness and foreclosures, we have also remained calm.

Oh, we've had a lot of disagreements; we've had shouting, name-calling and insulting of each other, mostly on social media, and the American people have protested vigorously, but we didn't tear our country apart; we didn't go rioting in the streets because, as Obama said at the Museum dedication, we are a country based on ideals, values and convictions and in the end, ideally, we come together on points of common ground.

When Republicans prepared to take over Congressional leadership several years ago, it seemed apparent that they might not cooperate with the nation's first black president. A journalist asked Pres. Obama who will drive America during the next two years. He replied, "the private sector (the people) will drive America." What he meant was that we elected our leaders, and we have the privilege and responsibility of making sure legislators work toward the ideals which will bring our inequities into balance.

All of these points about Americans are true, but they're not the essence of what makes America exceptional. We are exceptional because we are made up of a mind-boggling range of individuals. America is not perfect; far from it, but neither are you and I. America is comprised of every sort of humanity imaginable. We come from every corner and pocket of the world, and we are driven, for the most part, by ideals, values and convictions.

Yes, we come from every corner like my neighbors, who came this year from Syria. They are professional, well-educated people with green cards; the type of people who make up the marvelous concoction that is America. Two older women in the family came first, to settle with their brother who has been here for a number of years. Within a month, the ladies (whose English is improving every day) were volunteering in the community.

Then, came an older brother, a retired physician. When he arrived several months ago, he seemed to feel a little lost; today, his vegetable garden covers a good portion of their property, and he's nurturing it so that he can then nurture his family.

My friend from Northern Ireland came here a number of years ago, and settled in rural Illinois where he ran a successful B&B until retiring recently. He's well-ensconced in his community, as is my friend from China who lives in the north Georgia mountains; she is a professional artist who previously owned a Chinese restaurant.

That's the American spirit.

A nation's politicians and foreign policy do not define its people; ordinary citizens reacting extraordinarily define its people. My neighbors, friends and thousands of other people like them make America strong, rich and resilient. These are Americans and, on the whole, we are exceptionally good. Of course, people of other nations are also good; this is not to take away from anyone else. America's story, though, is unique.

At the Museum Dedication Ceremony, New York's former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said:

This museum... is a reminder to us and to all future generations that freedom carries heavy responsibilities, and it is a reflection of our belief that the true hope of humanity resides in our compassion and kindness to one another.

And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, " feel sad and grateful all at the same time, at how people all over the world responded. It was as if the entire world... cried with us and asked what they could do. People from over 90 countries died on Sept. 11th and so the world understood that while this happened on our soil it happened to all of us... and people from all walks of life and speaking every language came to help us dig out from under, and bandage our wounds.

"The world felt like a tightly knit community; a smaller, more caring place. This is how goodwill begins, in the understanding that we are, underneath all our many differences, fellow men and women with a love and a sanctity for human life."

So, when we see our politicians arguing against immigration reform, let us remember that the highest common denominator make up the largest number of our immigrants (13 percent).

To recent Americans and immigrants I say, whether or not you are a citizen, you are part of the fabric of America, and we need you.

We need your bravery in coming to a new land with seemingly strange customs. We need your economic values of frugality as you begin to gain a foothold on making your dreams come true. We need your humor and your values. We need the best of you; what you bring from your original lands.

We need for you to realize that you can see yourselves as Americans without losing any part of who you are. You will enhance yourselves, as you learn to help your children to bridge your original culture and your 'new' culture. Do you realize that you may be nurturing and influencing the next president of these United States?

You make America special. I make America special; each and every one of us makes America special. Your potential makes us special. Our common ideals make us special -- each of our own religion's version of the Ten Commandments, our moral values -- make us special.

We all want the same things -- a safe, nurturing environment for our children, a good job, comfortable home, freedom to practice our religion, to be who we are and to live free from fear.

I realize that, like all of us, America is still a work in progress, and I invite each of us to keep working together as we help America to reach her full potential. In our diversity, we'll look for the goodness and common ground in our fellow Americans (citizens or residents).

We'll enjoy and appreciate the differences among us; we'll learn from each other, we'll teach each other and, at the end of the day as Pres. Obama said at the Dedication, "(we are) a nation that stands tall, united and unafraid because no act of terror can match the strength and the character of our country... Nothing can ever break us; nothing can change who we are as Americans."