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September 17, 2013

Summer Musings: Exploring "exceptionalism"

My experience with September 11 contradicts Putin’s observations of the American people.

This past September 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote of the American people in his New York Times Op-Ed, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

I must disagree with Putin’s statement: Having lived extensively in both Russia and the United States, I believe the American people’s patriotism, allegiance, and community are, indeed, exceptional.

Like many, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I first learned about the attack on the World Trade Center exactly twelve years before Putin’s Op-Ed was published: in Mrs. Cox’s third grade classroom at Belle Sherman Elementary School, in Ithaca, New York. It was about noon—I remember because instead of going to lunch, we sat down with all three third-grade teachers, each with a serious, somber expression on their face. They said they had something very important to tell us.

I remember feeling confused. I did not understand what had happened. I did not yet know the World Trade Center by name. I can’t even remember if our teachers called it the World Trade Center or the Twin Towers, or if they even mentioned the attacked skyscrapers by name. Did they tell us about the Pentagon attack? Did they use the word “terrorism”? Did they call it an “attack”?

I don’t remember.

By the expressions of those around me, I merely understood that what had happened was very serious, very sad, and very, very bad.

In what I later learned was an anomalous move for New York schools, Belle Sherman let out at its regular 3:00 pm ending time, and I went home on my regular school bus along its regular route.

It wasn’t until I arrived home later that afternoon and finally saw the incessant CNN coverage of the attack—on the large screen in our apartment complex’s “Big Room,” a space typically reserved for community events and after-school activities—that I began to put two and two together. While I didn’t know the Twin Towers by name, I did know what they looked like, where they were, and what they symbolized.

But, standing in the Big Room, I began to recognize and appreciate something else—something much bigger and more powerful than any attack or terrorist could ever be; something that I still circle back to every time I reflect on this experience; something even more amazing than those unimaginably tall New York towers: American patriotism.

In the aftermath of this horrific tragedy, communities of all shapes and sizes were grieving together. People’s first reaction was not to isolate themselves, but to pull together, closer to their friends, families, and communities old and new. Some launched charities to help victims with their medical expenses; others hosted events, or helped affected neighbors with their cooking and cleaning, or later created music, movies, and art to collectively grieve and cope.

Through it all, everyone stuck together.

September 11 made me realize just how incredibly resilient and respectful and community-oriented this country is. Fundamentally, every American was not—still is not—for herself.

This is not at all to suggest that the United States is perfect, or that everyone is your friend here, or that our legal, political, social, and economic systems don’t have their fair share of malfunctions. And, to some extent, this characteristic is an inevitable consequence of the United States’ domestic tranquility and international dominance. But it’s also a product of the people.

Terror may have shaken us at stadiums and airports across the country, but it has not shaken our fundamental commitment to our country and to each other—to never giving up on this country, and instead working together to better it each and every day. Because despite everything that has happened, the truly amazing thing about America is its people’s deep-rooted commitment to sticking together through thick and thin.

Is the United States perfect? No, of course not. But it’s still pretty damn exceptional.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a third-year in the College majoring in economics. Summer Musings is a Viewpoints blog that publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays through September 27.

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