Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists flew four planes into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and a Pennsylvania field, killing thousands of Americans.
We were heartbroken and stunned. Many of us were furious.
Much of this country responded by coming together over the months that followed and making hard choices.
The attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people were murdered, strengthened our connection to each other. Trust in government doubled and optimism about national progress was at the highest level since 1959, according to a Pew Research Center report.
In the aftermath of the attacks, people flew the American flags on their cars, homes and businesses. They flocked to churches to pray for victims and the country. There were nationwide prayers for service members as they prepared for war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
People from many religions, including Islam, worshipped together.
Of course, our response was not all one of mutual support, and some Muslims, in particular, felt persecuted.
Americans, including members of Congress, followed then-President George Bush’s leadership as he guided the country in the war on terror. Partisan politics did not disappear, but there was a sense of working together for larger goals.
Then, national unity waned. Policy disputes on the size and role of government, racial equity, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas reached record levels while former President Barack Obama was in the White House, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center report. And today, we seem to focus more on what divides us than what unites us.
The gulf now is wide. Members of both parties have treated the last two presidencies as times to focus on our differences.
Our worst instincts as a nation have even been encouraged by some. Racism is more overt. White nationalists have come out of the shadows to espouse their views. The Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was a visible display of our lack of unity. We live in a nation in which even a pandemic that has killed more than 640,000 Americans is being met not by unity, but by divisiveness.
In the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks and the start of the war on terror, we seem to have forgotten the importance of unity and instead have allowed our differences to define us. It does not have to be this way.
On this anniversary, remember the crowded church pews. Remember the shared sense of loss, and the shared sense of purpose. Remember the lines of blood donors that stretched into the parking lots. Remember the decency that we shared with each other in moments large and small.
We need that sense of unity now. We have much to accomplish to bring the reality of America closer to the promise of America.
We’ve always been a resilient nation, and have persevered through much. Nothing would defeat the aims of the 9/11 terrorists more than if we used this anniversary to recommit to our joint sense of purpose and responsibility. We are a United States. Even with our flaws, we have it within us to overcome any obstacle. Let’s work together to be the nation and people we were after 9/11.