What September 11th, 2001, teaches us about today

This week we once again honor the sacrifice of the nearly 3,000 men and women—the vast majority of them civilians—who had their lives cut short by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Those of us who were alive at the time remember all too well the searing shock of that day—the numbness of realizing that our enemies had turned civilian jets into missiles of destruction, the wrenching pain of seeing multiple buildings in downtown New York at the heart of its iconic skyline disappearing forever, turning into dust, and taking with them every human being that couldn’t escape in time.  We likewise remember the attacks striking the heart of our military establishment with near impunity and the raging fires that lasted weeks at each location, burning what little remained of the memories of loved ones.  And we remember the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93, who upon learning of the attacks that had already struck New York City and the Pentagon, responded by taking action themselves and sacrificing their own lives in the skies over Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to stop what could have been yet another catastrophic attack on the Capitol or the White House.  Nearly two decades since these events, it is worth examining what lesson we might take from the events of that fateful day.

First, the events of 9/11 and what followed in the hours, days, weeks, and months after, demonstrate the sheer resilience and fortitude of the American spirit.  They demonstrate what we can do as a nation when we come together and unite as one.  On that day itself and for weeks afterwards, thousands of people showed up at the site of World Trade Center and the Pentagon to support the first responders who searched for survivors, including their colleagues who had rushed not away from the burning buildings but into them in order to save lives while often giving their own.  Across the nation, Americans came together to pray for our nation, its leaders, and it soldiers and to support those who would soon be called to action to respond and prevent further attacks.  President Bush himself journeyed to the site of the attacks and united the nation as he described the pain and righteous anger felt by our citizens.  And Americans of all backgrounds came together to ensure that rather than lashing out against a single group here at home, we instead identified those responsible and took action. 

What 9/11 teaches us...is that rather than turning inwards and cowering from the realization that we have made mistakes, we as Americans are at our best when we confront our own failures and resolve to address them. 

The way our nation handled September 11 and its aftermath is a lesson for our nation in this time of great economic challenges, major social strife, and increasing political polarization.  As painful and difficult as 9/11 was for the entire nation, rather than turning against one another, the American people—and our politicians—came together, uniting as one to help the nation recover and to gird ourselves for the battle to come.  Those who brought those attacks to our shores learned very quickly that America would not be cowed by their ghastly work nor go quietly into the night.  They wrongly believed that American did not have the fortitude for the fight and could be easily divided.  This is not to suggest that everything we did after 9/11 was perfect nor that there was unanimity as to the actions our nation undertook.  To be sure,  there were many debates, discussions, and arguments that followed, but at the end of it all, the nation was committed to responding and protecting our future generations.  And while we have lost nearly 7,000 members of our Armed forces and those that support them in this fight, we sent a clear message that American cannot be attacked without consequences. 

Today there are many who believe our nation has fundamentally changed since those attacks two decades ago.  They once again believe that Americans can be easily divided, that we have tired of endless wars, and that we have lost the stomach for the fight.  And they might be forgiven for thinking so.  After all, one need only to flip on any cable news channel to see tales of urban centers aflame, politicians viciously attacking one another and seeking to divide rather than unite, and disagreements over how to respond to the global pandemic freezing needed action to slow the spread and allay its very real economic and health consequences.  In many ways, if all you did was read the news or surf the Internet, you’d reasonably think that America was no longer the nation that came together in the weeks and months after 9/11 to present a united front.  

But you’d be wrong. 

All across this nation, over the course of the last year, individual Americans and communities have come together to support one another.  We have seen Americans of all ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds come together to speak out against injustice and inequality.  We have seen neighbors reach out to lend a helping hand—even if they couldn’t shake it—and to provide care and comfort to those in need.  While it is easy to believe that the animosity of our political class and the sordid tales of polarization and frustration told by the news media are the heart of our nation, the fact is that at the most granular level, we are still like those who came together after 9/11.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that all is fine in our nation.  Just as 9/11 taught us about the mistakes that had been made in the lead-up to those attacks—how we missed the clear signals from the earlier 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, how the messages from our intelligence and law enforcement communities that we were under severe threat got lost in the noise, and how we missed 19 hijackers living in our country plotting against us for much too long—so too we know that much of our current situation is borne of ignoring long-festering issues in our nation.  

We know that we have ignored inequality and mistreatment for far too long.  We know that we were woefully unprepared for a pandemic and that our supply chain is far too reliant on others.  We know that our enemies think they can attack our elections and our economic infrastructure, stealing trillions of dollars, without a substantive response.  What 9/11 teaches us about this, however, is that rather than turning inwards and cowering from the realization that we have made mistakes, we as Americans are at our best when we confront our own failures and resolve to address them.  That rather than allowing ourselves to be divided, we are strongest when we unite to tackle the hardest challenges ahead of us.  That when put to the test, rather than backing off and blaming others, we take responsibility and press forward.

We owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11 and in its aftermath not to forget these lessons.  We owe it to our forefathers who built this great nation to hold our elected leaders accountable to take action now to protect our nation and its people in these challenging times.  We owe it to the innovators who have created economic opportunity to not take the simple paths, but to find real solutions.  And we owe it to our fellow Americans to be better to one another.    

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