The 'Common Man' Response to 9/11 Shows American Exceptionalism

Everyday Americans showed the world how compassionate they were in their response to the terrorist attacks.

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Before we completely turn the page on 9/11 and return to daily life in America, it is appropriate to reflect a bit on the ways that terrible event changed us all.

For those of us in Washington on that day 10 years ago, the attack changed the rhythm of life in the nation's capital. As horrifying as events of that day were, the days following were equally disturbing as we wondered whether something else was about to happen. Normally busy streets were near deserted as police and military personnel were stationed on street corners holding automatic weapons they would not hesitate to use if called upon to do so.  This, more than anything, served to shatter the sense of security that, in America, had become commonplace in the months and years following the end of the Cold War.

[See photos of the 10th anniversary of 9/11]

There was, however, another aspect to the immediate post-9/11 period, one that reflected the nation's inherent strength and resilience.

As the nation viewed via television the rubble and suffering at the Pentagon and at the former site of the World Trade Center a remarkable cohesion evolved, one that brought people of all colors and creeds and political orientation together into a force of one mind, confident and hopeful that, as Americans all, this was a crisis that would be overcome. In the years that have passed, that sense of unity has dissipated as the nation has returned to its fractured, diverse, opinionated, marvelous, historic self.

[Read: Journalists Remember 9/11]

Some of this has been for the better, some of it for the worse. Still, the experience of 9/11 has changed us as a country in profound ways.

The day produced many heroes, not just among the political class but among what more than one writer has called "the common man." To a person, the country remains fascinated and humbled by the acts of the so-called ordinary people who did extraordinary things that day out of love for mankind. From the first responders who ran into burning buildings to rescue the trapped and the injured, to the passengers who took back control of their hijacked airliner to prevent it from crashing into a Washington, D.C. landmark, from the people who ran to the danger zone to see what they might do to help, to the people who donated blood because it was all they could do. We as Americans set an example for the rest of the world.

[Read: For Pentagon First Responders, a New World Since 9/11]

Such acts of terror are, thankfully, still not commonplace in this country. The reasons for that are best left to another column. The response to them however, through all the shock and horror and tears, was commonplace. A compassionate, motivated, unique people, Americans take the worst of what the world has to offer and then some and then get right back up and move on with the business, not of life, but of exceptionalism. It is not just in triumph that we serve as the model for the world but in tragedy as well. As 9/11 recedes further and further into the mists of time, this is the lesson onto which we should hold: America acts differently from the rest of the world because we are different, so much the better for ourselves and for the rest of the world.

  • Read about NATO's future after the 10 year anniversary of 9/11
  • See a slide show of 6 vulnerable potential terrorist targets.
  • Rick Newman: How America Has Underperformed Since 9/11