Twenty years ago this week, time stopped as we watched the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For weeks, we could think of little else but the innocent lives lost and the heroism of first responders who raced to save them, only to perish themselves in grievous numbers.
There was one source of comfort in that nightmare: the feeling, often expressed by community leaders, that “we are all in this together.” That feeling was especially palpable on the streets of wounded New York City, where we saw spontaneous outpourings of gratitude and consolation for police officers and firefighters, and where everyone became more solicitous, less impatient and pushy, and somehow kinder in a uniquely New York way. Even Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush seemed to get the spirit of solidarity that took hold — for a while, anyway.
And then, suddenly, we weren’t in it together anymore. We were invading Iraq and suspecting that September 11 was an inside job. An effort to understand what led to the horror of that day and how we had missed so many warning signs turned into an endless war costing trillions of dollars.
Eighteen months ago, the world seemed to stop again when the coronavirus precipitated the collapse of life as we had known it. And once again, we told ourselves that we were all in it together and we would find a way to survive it together. Even Donald Trump, who bungled so many things as the most ill-prepared president in U.S. history, somehow managed to allow the success of a magnificent scientific and technological effort to create Covid-19 vaccines. Congress passed relief measures that kept people from sinking into poverty and homelessness and kept businesses and nonprofits afloat.
And now, once again, we suddenly aren’t in it together anymore. Even though we have the wealth and the knowledge as a society to control the pandemic, we are divided into irreconcilable camps, unable to persuade or even listen to each other, while the numbers of Covid cases rise and the hospitals overflow.
Why is it that the impulse for solidarity, generosity, and grace emerges for a time when we are wounded and then dissolves, leaving us hurting more than before?
That question seems especially pressing in this week of September, with our local housing crisis worse than ever, and our Supreme Court unsympathetic to the idea of an eviction moratorium. “Divisiveness” appears to be the word of the month, with some part-time residents complaining about how they are treated by town governments — and being called out by select board members for being divisive themselves. Meanwhile, board members fight with each other over real and imagined slights and breaches of proper conduct.
A ray of light among these clouds: Chris Legere’s story on page one about Wellfleet’s emerging “YIMBY” movement. Will it survive? I hope so. Because its promise is that, even if we can’t agree on everything, we can still act to help each other as well as ourselves.