09/11/2014 02:47 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

United We Stand Requires Actions, Not Just Words

It was not the first time I saw an explosion live on television. Like many American kids my age, I remembered sitting in my classroom watching the Challenger take off and not understanding what had happened or why my teacher was crying. But I was so young. This time I knew what I was seeing even if I could hardly believe it.

I was directing a canvass office in Ann Arbor that fall. I was running late to work that day. Usually, I would have been at my desk drinking my coffee and finalizing our plan for the day before the trainers and new canvassers arrived. I got on the elevator and a woman from another floor said something about New York. I didn't understand what she was talking about. I got into my office and turned on the radio. I heard them talking about the World Trade Center and an explosion. We didn't know what was happening.

At some point someone turned on a television and there it was, the image that so many of us have burned into our memories of the first tower and a plane -- something that would have seemed like a shot from a bad action film on any other day.

I had moved to Michigan for the job. With little time to find a place and a demanding schedule, I had an apartment I barely slept in and a roommate I did not really know. I found myself at my assistant director, Chris' house. We had closed the office and called the staff. Many of them were far from home, too. We ended up together in a sort of vigil where we could not help but continue to stare at the television hungry for information afraid to watch and yet afraid to look away

It is strange that I can remember exactly what I was wearing and the people in the room. I have lost touch with most of them. I don't remember all of their names and yet their faces, their tears and their looks of confusion and fear I will likely never forget.

I also remember that there was this feeling that we were coming together as a country. The horrific images on the television were undeniable, but so were the pictures and stories of people who had put themselves at risk to help a friend, a colleague or a complete stranger get out. There were the first responders who had rushed in to a burning building to save people and who were there days after continuing to help everyone that they could.

There was a lot of flag waving and "united we stand." We said we would never forget and yet it seems like we have. We honor the fallen and the lost each year. We tell the stories and shed a tear. But where is the unity? Where is the sense that we can and must be there for each other? That we can and must be a country that does right by each other? I can't ignore on this or any day that we are not living up to the ideals that we spoke of and we are not united.

I have always felt uncomfortable with the sort of patriotism that says we should wear our red, white and blue but not question what is happening in our country or the actions of our leaders. Flag waving is not patriotism. Questioning and demanding that we live up to our values -- that is patriotism. And that is what we must do.

We can and should take time to remember those who were lost. But we also can, should and must have real conversations about the fact that we can do better to truly be the "land of the free". Simply saying we are a place of equal opportunity does not make it so. If we want to say "united we stand" then let's do something about it.