August 27, 2011; Source: The White House | How many of us listen to the president’s Saturday radio addresses? Or, for that matter, the Republican responses? This one merited attention. 

In his August 27 address President Obama acknowledged the upcoming tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He called for Americans to “pay tribute to those who lost their lives during 9/11 by visiting to find ways to help within their own communities.” The president suggested that “through the smallest of actions, we can reclaim the sense of unity that followed the attacks, and demonstrate that our sense of common purpose is just as strong today as it was ten years ago.” He called for this September 11th to be another “National Day of Service and Remembrance” in which “folks across the country—in all 50 states—will come together, in their communities and neighborhoods, to honor the victims of 9/11 and to reaffirm the strength of our nation with acts of service and charity.”

He had examples:

In Minneapolis, volunteers will help restore a community center. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, they’ll hammer shingles and lay floors to give families a new home. In Tallahassee, Florida, they’ll assemble care packages for our troops overseas and their families here at home. In Orange County, California, they’ll renovate homes for our veterans. And once again, Michelle and I look forward to joining a local service project as well.

After September 11th, the nation—or at least part of the nation—was brought together toward a common purpose, which deep down had something to do with a refusal to allow Al Qaeda’s terrorism to frighten Americans into undoing our democratic principles and values. The nation struggled with that goal, succeeding in some areas, failing in others. Will a day of service, with a searchable database of volunteer opportunities available on a government website, restore a sense of common purpose in the U.S.—or perhaps create one where none might have existed? Making generic volunteer “service” the default strategy for capturing a fading vision of national unity seems to fall short when Americans, caught in a persistent recession, a continuing budget crisis, and an unending war in Afghanistan want answers of substance rather than symbolism.—Rick Cohen