Recently I read that the sign on the wall outside the CIA Mission Center for Counterterrorism reads, “Today is September 12, 2001.”  In that article, the former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell lauded the efforts of those charged to protect our homeland following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but pointed out that the rise in political polarization in the United States has given way to new security threats at home and abroad.  Our future national security will depend, he argued, on our leaders’ ability to collaborate across partisan divides.

He’s right, but after nearly a decade in Washington and now a decade outside the beltway, I believe our nation’s future depends on every day Americans like you and me.

Today is September 12, 2018, but the kind of unity of purpose and national solidarity we saw 17 years ago seems impossible to find. When the towers fell we looked to our leaders to make sense of the tragedy and they reminded us that the strength of America is found the character of our citizens: courageous and compassionate, generous and kind.

Now we need to be citizens who model that strength by wading into a battlefield we prefer to avoid.

Long before my first job at the White House, I believed that politics was best observed from afar, a business best left to those with louder voices.  I suspect that’s how many Americans feel today: we want no part in the never-ending drama that capitalizes on conflict.  But we cannot plug our ears, close our eyes and merely hope tomorrow looks better than today.  If we want to see change, we cannot surrender the playing field to people we wish played differently.

Ten years ago, a thoughtful writer assessed another especially tense political moment, concluding, “What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace – a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we’re in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative.”

I believe patriotic grace could be transformational for our country, but it must begin with each of us.  

Our founding fathers staked their lives and reputations upon the notion that a democratic government was stronger and freer than a government tied to personality or lineage.  Centuries of history now affirm their bold experiment, concluding that the strongest democracies include every voice – not just the loudest.

Our voices matter, but we must become citizens who move beyond complaint and criticism to advocating accountability among our leaders. To do so, we must vote in every election.

We deserve and must demand servant leaders who recognize the gravity of the decisions they make, and who govern mindful of the responsibility they carry.

Set the bar high for the individuals who receive your vote.  Their willingness to serve is not their highest recommendation. The greatest prediction of their success on your behalf is their strength of character.  Who they are when the cameras are off is a good indicator of the kind of leader will they be when “the towers fall” in the future.

We must sacrifice our penchant for personality politics or sensational stories and pursue thoughtful, responsible discourse.

Consider, what might government look like that rejects the premise of division and advocates common ground? What might happen if a greater number of every day Americans refused to accept the polarity that pretends to protect one group or one way of life?

Regardless of the headline, the political commercial or the sound bite, there are no winners when we advocate division. We all lose when we pretend politics is a zero sum game.  There is no “us versus them.”  Partisan politics perpetuates “us versus us,” and that’s not productive.

We live in a unique moment in American history that requires a new kind of American engagement.  The challenges we face today require each of us to ask, “what do we believe?”  If the life we see around us does not reflect what we believe, we must choose to live differently.

I’m a proud American, a third generation military spouse, a mother, and a former government official.  My greatest responsibility in each of these roles is to honor the sacrifice of those who came before me. My daughters’ future depends upon my stewardship of my citizenship today.

We cannot afford to wait one more day.

Katye Riselli is a writer and military spouse.  She previously served as speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director to Mrs. Laura Bush and as a founding member of the Department of Homeland Security.

Recommending Reading: Patriotic Grace

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