For me, the meaning of a decade of living with 9/11 is about Americans' struggle to come to grips with our vulnerability and our new place in the world.
The events of September 11, 2001 taught us that we were physically vulnerable to attack from a few madmen despite having the strongest military on earth. The Great Recession taught us that our economic security was vulnerable from internal, and then worldwide shocks that we had little or no control over.
The truth is that America's time as the preeminent world leader is nearing an end. If we haven't already ceded the title of most powerful economy to China, then it's only a matter of time. And without the strongest economy on Earth, we can't long sustain the most powerful military on the planet. Someday soon it will dawn on us that our very identity as the world's only true superpower is false. And who will we be then?
This is why candidates like Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and, maybe, Sarah Palin, are getting serious consideration, when in normal times they'd be considered marginalized eccentrics. In a time of confusion about America's very identity, it can be comforting to some to hear candidates make strong statements about American exceptionalism, all evidence to the contrary.
Those who say that we can be "great again" are implying that we're not great now because of our weak economy, as if America were defined by its gross national product alone. I would argue that we remain a great nation because of the idea of America, because of what we represent to the world.
America is exceptional. And it's not because of our economic output or our military strength. We are special because of the promises we make to ourselves and, by extension, to all of humanity.
We make outrageous promises. We promise freedom to pursue life, liberty and that most illusive of human pursuits, happiness.
We promise that people will be judged on the content of their character. We tell ourselves that we are a meritocracy, where those who work the hardest will be rewarded the most.
In short, we make promises that are outrageous and unachievable. We aim high and come up short again and again, but we keep moving toward the goal. We are a better country in 2011 than we were in 1911 and that's got nothing to do with our economy. That's the story of America, and that's what makes me proud to be an American.
We won't honor the victims and heroes of 9/11 by bloviating about being number one in this or that, or by pounding our chests about bringing Osama bin Laden to a rough justice, or by pretending that we can go our own way in the world without regard for the irreversibly interconnected international community.
No, we honor America best every time we try to keep its promises, which are, after all, so outrageous and so unachievable and so wonderful.