SID SALTER: Why does it take a cataclysm to bring America together?

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – There are a few moments after more than a half-century of life that I remember in fine detail. Most of those moments are personal and involve moments with loved ones and friends.
Some of those moments are times of immeasurable joy. Many are times of great sorrow as well. Those are moments that I keep, treasure and ponder in my own time and in my own way.
There are more public moments. I remember my play with my twin sister being interrupted and my grandmother’s rapt attention being torn from her soap opera as the black-and-white Zenith TV brought us the news that President Kennedy had been shot and killed on Nov. 22, 1963. It was the first time I had ever known that the world was wider than the pine tops I could see in the distance. My sister and I watched as Kennedy’s children mourned their father – and later recoiled as we watched Lee Harvey Oswald shot dead by Jack Ruby.
Less than a decade later, I remember sitting up at night shelling peas with my family while we watched Neil Armstrong take his “giant leap for mankind” on the surface of the moon on July 21, 1969. A few years later, I remember hearing Richard Nixon resign the presidency during the Watergate scandal on Aug. 8, 1974. I was at the Neshoba County Fairgrounds.
I remember the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986. My wife called me home from the office to watch the coverage. I walked in the house and saw my wife holding our two-week-old baby in front of the TV. There were tears on my wife’s cheeks.
But most of all, I remember 9/11. It was my first day back at work at The Clarion-Ledger after undergoing a painful and extensive spinal fusion surgery. My leg was numb, my back ached and I was wearing a back brace and walking on a cane.
I heard murmurs of colleagues gathered around the bank of TV screens in the newsroom. I hobbled over to join them. I watched the horror unfolding and have never been able to forget the sight of those who jumped into oblivion to escape the flames from the Twin Towers.
That sense of horror grew and changed as we learned more about Flight 93 and the brave passengers who sacrificed their lives to save others and to stop this attack. They were patriots and heroes.
I remember the decision in the newsroom to produce an “extra” edition. We worked hard to get the news out to the public, a public hungry for details and for clarity. At some point during the day, I put down my cane. It seemed silly as I watched the scenes on TV. Whatever pain I felt seemed so insignificant.
What I remember most is how quickly we stopped being the divided, angry group of Americans that we’d all been since the 2000 election and the Florida recount. I remember how we came together as Americans with a common purpose and how people donated blood, money, time and prayers to strangers. I remember how the tone of political discourse changed for a time from fighting each other to coming together as a people.
I wondered then and I wonder now: why does it take a cataclysm for us to remember that we are all Americans? Why is it that we can’t agree agreeably and seek consensus until there is blood on the floor?
This is a time to honor that singular American relationship of one people from many backgrounds coming together as a purposeful nation that values liberty, justice, and freedom – not a time to reopen old wounds and divisions.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.