Twenty years ago, our nation was stunned as terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into the buildings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in doing so brought a visage of death and destruction we had never expected to see on American soil.
While random, calculated deadly violence is a frequent occurrence in some parts of the world, we never expected it to happen here, and suddenly there was fear where none had existed before.
Like Dec. 7, 1941, the date of Sept. 11, 2001 was etched forever into the bedrock of the nation’s history, never to be forgotten.
In the days following the attack, much of the nation rallied around themes of unity and patriotism.
In retrospect, those painful days following the attacks may have been the last in which a vast majority of the country was truly united behind a common cause, suffering in grief together, feeling shock together, pledging to move forward, together.
If only we could rally today in a united front against a medical terror, the way we once did when confronted with terror of the human variety.
The attacks of 9/11 brought an end to an era of innocence in which we thought we were immune to the sort of inhuman attacks witnessed elsewhere for so many years.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that many of the trials and tribulations we face as a nation today can be traced to those terrorists and the lives they claimed.
As a result of 9/11/01, we collectively gave up personal freedoms long held as sacrosanct in exchange for promised safety and security; we lost faith in governmental entities and national leadership; we allowed ourselves to entertain the notion of conspiracies beyond any normal bounds of logic; over time, our patriotic unity splintered into divisive tribalism and finger pointing.
Those problems have exacerbated since and threaten the fiber of the nation today. Like a fracture in concrete that widens over time, the damage done by the terrorists who attacked us 20 years ago has spread, so that rather than a unified “us vs. them” front, we are embroiled in a conflict of “us vs. us.”
And yet still we stand. We still have personal freedoms that are the envy of most of the world, still offer a standard of living of which many others can only dream, still stand as a beacon of hope that attracts those from other countries who come by the thousands each year, dreaming of bettering themselves.
We have staggered since 9/11/01, but a fifth of a century later, while our legs may sometimes be weak, we are still upright and moving forward.
The passage of time changes the perspective of everything, and future reflections on 9/11 will change as well.
Consider the fact that nearly 29% of the current population of the United States was not born when those planes were flown into buildings full of people in 2001. They didn’t watch TV coverage of people jumping to their deaths, of first responders giving their lives to save others, of families torn asunder.
By the time that portion of the population reaches adulthood, will the events of 9/11/01 still be as emotionally tragic and powerful a portion of the nation’s history? Probably not. In another 20 years, what happened on that bright, sunny day in New York and Washington likely will be relegated to the back pages of our national history.
Ironically, while they were not alive to witness the events that so shocked our world, that same segment of the nation’s population has never known a day when we were not embroiled in warfare in the Middle East as a result of those attacks. And because much of the cost of those wars has been deferred, it will fall to them to pay for the trillions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan in a “war on terror” that has only in recent days come to an ignoble ending, and the success of which will be debated for generations to come.
Just as a majority of the nation’s current population cannot fully imagine how the news of Pearl Harbor impacted the country in 1941, the future generations of adults who will determine the fate of the nation are likely to reflect on Sept. 11 with historic detachment rather than emotional investment.
But for now, for most of us, the memories are still too real, the deaths still too painful and the changes resulting from that fateful day still too obvious to forget. Let us pause to remember, to again feel the grief and the emotion, to be united in that, if nothing more.