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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

When we see ourselves in others

FDNY firefighters George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Bill

FDNY firefighters George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Bill Eisengrein raise an American flag near the rubble of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: The Record-USA TODAY NETWORK /Thomas E. Franklin

We all came together after 9/11.

And we all have repeated that phrase so much that it's become American dogma. The way we rallied after 9/11. The way we were united after 9/11. The way we had common cause after 9/11.

It didn't last. That's also American dogma. And that togetherness vanished a whole lot more quickly than the togetherness we felt during and after World War II.

The 20 years that have passed since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, have shown us that when it comes to pursuing big goals, putting aside our differences is not the same as bridging our differences. We're good at the former, if only for a while, and typically when we've been provoked by an identifiable enemy we can easily define as an "other." But we're not good at all on the latter.

Bridging our differences admittedly is more complex than merely putting them aside temporarily. Bridging requires more energy and more persistence and more engagement. Bridging is about the long term, not the short term. And our inability to do it has cost us dearly.

Pick an issue, whether it be guns, COVID-19, climate change, immigration, race relations, or any number of others. Profound issues all. And each one is eating away at us because of our inability to bridge our differences in order to make progress.

Curiously, we are pretty good at bridging our differences on a micro level. We see that all the time when it comes to helping individuals in need. A tragic death in a neighbor's family, a local community devastated by a weather catastrophe, a sick child or ailing grandparent, a local business on the ropes — the word goes out and we usually have no trouble crowdsourcing, collecting or otherwise pitching in.

Then why are we so bad at the big stuff?

Perhaps the answer lies in what the post-9/11 landscape has in common with the urge we feel to help individuals in need — our ability to see the humanity in one another, to recognize ourselves in one another, to empathize with one another's situations.

They hurt, and we can feel that hurt. We understand that hurt. We want to help alleviate that hurt. And so we act, not thinking about all the other things we might not have in common — because we know that in these scenarios, none of that is important.

That understanding, that recognition, doesn't seem to be present on the more macro issues. And it's not simply a matter of not being able to see our common humanity, it's that we're not even willing to try — not even for a microsecond — to look for it, whether it's guns or COVID or something else.

Finding one's basic humanity in someone else and acting on that is ennobling. Refusing to see it is debasing and paralyzing.

At this moment, we're losing as many people to COVID-19 in two days as we did on Sept. 11. How can all of us as a nation not see all that suffering and the ripples that tear through those left behind and not want to alleviate it by doing our part?

Year after year, we lose nearly 40,000 of our fellow Americans to gun violence, at their own hands or the hands of others, in quiet acts of self-destruction or public spectacles of slaughter. How can all of us as a nation not see the trauma being inflicted on and by our fellow humans and not want to come together to try to find a way to end it?

If we can't find a way to understand how others are hurting and see ourselves in them, we'll never escape the pain that holds all of us down.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.