Longing for the unity that once healed a nation

Published 5:39 pm Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Twenty years on, 9-11’s enduring image for this pundit is the unity that soothed a wounded nation.

If, heaven forbid, terrorists launched an assault of the same scale today, I’m not sure we’d be up for the collective healing of 2001. Within hours we’d be fighting on social media about whether the current president or the former president was to blame, and hearing from some of our own that America got what she deserved.

More astute students of history than this one may point to angrier times in America. We did, after all, fight a Civil War and routinely settle political scores with duels in the streets.

But in my 54 years, I’ve never seen the country madder and more tribal. COVID-19, which in more innocent times might have united America, has somehow divided us further. Biological enemies — polio and childhood diseases come to mind — once brought resolve. Now they’re just another reason to squabble.

What could have caused such a change in the national psyche in 20 short years? I ponder the question often.

Social media certainly deserves a big chunk of the blame. So-called “hot takes” in 2001 were limited to the TV talking heads, who themselves were less partisan and more thoughtful than the MSNBC and Fox provocateurs of 2021.

Today, we spew on Facebook or Twitter before we think. An early mentor in journalism gave me great advice on commentary writing that has served me well over the past 30 years. When you’re inspired to say something critical, write it the day before deadline and sleep on it. Invariably, the light of the next day will reveal ways to make your point more constructively. He was right.

Social media requires no deep breaths. We just get mad and type.

And now we’ve learned that foreign actors are actually baiting us on social media, brilliantly turning Americans from countrymen to foes.

Though they might still do so, terrorists no longer need to bomb us. As Russia and China have demonstrated, just plant a seed of division on Facebook and watch us self-destruct.

 

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is steve.stewart@smithfieldtimes.com.