The incomprehensible attacks of 10 years ago remain fresh in the memories and heart-wrenching in the emotions of all who witnessed them. I worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., at the time and vividly recall feeling what I had only experienced in nightmares — helplessness in witnessing brutality that caused the mind to rebel. People responded to what we saw with repeated denial: This can’t be happening. Fear was heightened by continuing reports of hijacked planes headed into the district. Officials did not know whether we would be safer in our building — across the street from the Capitol — or out on the streets. Rumors of a car bomb at the State Department and smoke from the Old Executive Office Building added to the confusion. If our leaders had contingencies for such an attack, no one seemed to know what they were or how to implement them.
Despite the fear, anger and disarray, Americans responded in their unique fashion. In contrast to those bent on horror and death, Americans exhibited extraordinary heroism, immeasurable kindness. Strangers helped one another at their own peril, hundreds of them making the ultimate sacrifice. Tales emerged of great compassion, unimaginable bravery. In the days and years that followed, we witnessed the true characteristics that make America distinct and great.
In honor of those who lent “faithful support” to others, we offer the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in his book “Democracy in America” — written about Americans more than 160 years before Sept. 11, 2001.
THAT THE AMERICANS COMBAT THE EFFECTS
OF INDIVIDUALISM BY FREE INSTITUTIONS
Although private interest directs the greater part of human actions in the United States as well as elsewhere, it does not regulate them all. I must say that I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare; and I have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another. The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society. They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures; and as he sees no particular ground of animosity to them, since he is never either their master or their slave, his heart readily leans to the side of kindness.