It had the prospect of finally uniting us, we were told, after our politics had taken a particularly nasty turn. Not that partisanship or divisions in American life were new -- they had existed almost since the beginning of the Republic.
They had gotten bad by Sept. 11, and the day was perhaps harrowing enough to finally shock us into cooperating with each other. I can remember driving to the Columbia airport on Sept. 12 on the long-shot hope that a newsstand there would be open and have a copy of The New York Times. But the airport was locked down and completely still, and the car of the friend I was riding with was searched by the law enforcement officers was searched just to be sure.
And I can remember driving in downtown Columbia a few days later with the same friend, after the flight ban had been lifted, and watching an airplane arc overhead as we passed by one of the tallest buildings in Columbia. And while both of us knew that the plane was too high and the building too low to be a target, we were temporarily transfixed. We watched until the plane had passed, just to be sure.
Those kinds of experiences were supposed to shock us back to the old ways, where partisanship was limited to politics and was a passing aspect of every other fall, not an every day occurrence that touches every part of our lives.
But in recent years, Americans have no longer been content to temporarily divide themselves ahead of elections. Instead, we have spent the last decade permanently fracturing and splintering and atomizing the country that it is hard to recognize it anymore -- hard to remember it as the nation where Congress stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang God Bless America, the country where a president stood on the rubble of Ground Zero and promised to exact justice, and we all cheered.
The other side is no longer a group of Americans with a competing view of America, or a different set of beliefs, but an enemy that must be eradicated before it somehow alters our country. But in fighting each other to the death, we run a far greater risk of changing the character of this nation than any political ideology ever could.
And it has spread to areas far beyond politics, like sports. We used to simply fling jokes or light-hearted insults at each other; now we poison each others trees or shoot each other. We call into national radio shows and threaten to physically assault them.
Some blame our technology. But technology is only what we do with. The Internet and Twitter have not made us this way, we have made ourselves this way.
Over the last 10 years, we have not been worthy of those we lost. I pray that, someday, we will be.
- - -
On Saturday, after I had largely written this post in my head, I returned a car I had rented to go to Miami on a business trip. Tired and unkempt after a 10-hour drive the day before, I was strolling past the Old Capitol here in Tallahassee. To me, it was nothing special, something I saw practically every day at work. But there were three obviously foreign tourists there on Saturday. And one of them was staring at the Capitol, with a look of awe in his eyes, and I couldn't tell whether it was because of the majesty of the gleaming white building or at the democracy and debate it symbolized.
And for a moment, I had the same mixture of pride and resolve that I felt after 9/11. Maybe there's hope after all.