This September 11, America will foremost mourn the nearly 3,000 people who were killed in the twin towers, the Pentagon and on a now-sacred field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, 20 years ago, along with honoring the thousands of “heroes who did ordinary things at extraordinary times so others may live.”*
As there has been on every anniversary, there will also be — as there should be — a lot of reflection on and introspection about how that horrific event united us, how it ignited a fire in our hearts and bellies, but also on how short-lived that unity was.
In an essay, nine years after 9/11, I asked the question “Nine Years After 9.11: Will We Ever Be ‘One’ Again?”
In writing about my disappointment that we had not stayed “one” — as united, as “American,” as we were immediately after the attack — and referring to a letter to TIME I had written four years earlier, I wrote how disheartening it was that the letter could be replicated at the time, “changing only a few words, a few particulars. For, sadly, America remains deeply and bitterly divided.”
Well, today, 20 years after 9/11, it is even more disheartening that – except for a few updates – that Sept. 2010 essay is still pertinent.
Here are some (updated) excerpts:
Our nation has been through a lot since 9/11: Two wars that cost the lives of 7,064 American troops, natural disasters, economic disasters, political disasters, domestic terrorism, civil unrest and riots, presidential impeachments, a decimating pandemic, false presidential allegations of rigged elections…all culminating in a treasonous insurrection only eight months ago.
While our nation was solidly united immediately after the dastardly attack, it wasn’t long before bad political decisions and leaders, bitter partisanship and ideology, xenophobia and nationalism, outlandish conspiracy theories, distrust in government, courts, institutions — even in science — started chipping away at that unity, gradually and inexorably eroding the special bond, the common purpose Americans shared immediately after 9/11.
Five years after 9/11, in September 2006, I expressed my thoughts on how America had changed since we were all one.
In a letter in Time, I wrote:
Five years after 9/11, our nation ought to be as united as it was on that tragic day. We should have held on to the outpouring of global goodwill and support we received then. We should have remained laser-focused on rooting out and bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks. We should have remained committed to making our homeland more secure.
After 9/11 our nation should have rededicated itself to the Constitution, the rule of law and respect for human and civil rights. Like most Americans, I remember 9/11 with sadness, a sadness that deepens when I think of what our country could have been five years after the day when we were all one.
Four years later, Nikki Stern, a lady whose husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks, a person who — if anyone — should have a profoundly personal perspective on the September 11 tragedy, had this to say in a Sept. 2010 USA Today column:
Nine years out, what comes to mind when we read about or talk about or even think about 9/11 is anger or fear, or mistrust; all the failures and grievances that have hardened our worldview. We’ve retreated to our small groups of like-minded people whose absolute certainty enables our own; we see nothing in common with those “others” whose politics, faith, background, or outlook don’t match ours. We see no reason to make an effort.
If that’s 9/11’s legacy, if that’s how we honor our dead, our country, or our values, I want no part of it.
Ten years later, America remains deeply and bitterly divided.
Divisions that are fueled and deepened by unprecedented, uncompromising rancor and hostility — mutual disdain — between Americans of different social and financial standings, against certain immigrants, against those of a different sexual orientation and even against those of a different political persuasion.
Such uncompromising attitudes have rendered our nation, our government, our society dysfunctional, to the point that the “greatest nation on earth” finds itself incapable of defeating a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans thus far.
Nevertheless, I have faith in America. I know we will once again come together, as we did “on the day when we were all one.”
I share Mrs. Stern’s hopes that this
9th 20th anniversary of 9/11 will finally begin to bring forth a new, fresh legacy for our country:
I don’t know whether or when this nation, its leaders or its citizens, might be willing to dial back the outrage and stow the self-serving grandstanding. Maybe we can start with Sept. 11, on which day we can spend more time and energy commemorating the spirit that once brought forth our better selves and bonded us in common purpose.
That’s a legacy I would embrace as a far more fitting tribute to those who were killed than any memorial I can imagine
* *Written by Chief Joseph Pfeifer (the first FDNY chief on scene at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attack) at the top of One World Trade Center.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.