The Tribute in Light shines above lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and One World Trade Center, left, Saturday in New York. Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
When times are at their worst, Americans tend to be at their best.
Think back to the Flood of 1994 in Southwest Georgia. Albany was a city literally divided by a raging Flint River, but longtime area residents will tell you they can’t remember a time when the people of the city were more unified. People have a predilection of compartmentalizing other people according to race, sex, religion, economic status and a myriad of other mental filters. When the focus was on survival against nature, those artificial barriers crumbled.
For a while, anyway. In the 17 years since, there is more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that divisions have been reinstated and are as full in force as they have ever been.
On a national scale, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011, had the same effect. As we read, watched and listened in horror to the details of the two jetliners slamming into the Twin Towers, the third jetliner crashing into the Pentagon, and the fourth jetliner thwarted in its mission by brave passengers, America forgot a lot of things as it focused on a deadly, unprecedented enemy.
We forgot about divisions. Liberals and conservatives stood together. The U.S. flag — the symbol of America — showed up everywhere — on houses, on cars, on shirts, on jacket lapels. An enemy had dared to bring death and destruction to our shores, and we were determined to wipe it off the face of the Earth. Slogans like “These colors don’t run” could be seen everywhere.
We stood together as Americans.
Fast-forward 10 years.
Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, is dead, killed during a lightning strike by Navy SEALs. We have, for the first time since 2003, registered a month in Iraq in which there were no American fatalities. We took the Afghan government away from the Taliban, but we’re as deep in that war as we were when we first bombed in 2003. Thousands of our troops have been killed, and we have spent an enormous amount of money supporting two long wars.
The unity we felt as Americans on Sept. 12, 2001, hasn’t held up to today. Liberals and conservative politicians are at each others’ throats. Threats from terrorists might be important, but the threats of not controlling a chamber of Congress or the White House is much bigger for them. We’ve endured a horrendous recession, seen too many of our co-workers thrown out of work and too many Americans are finding the battle against joblessness to be their No. 1 priority.
You don’t see the U.S. flags waving from nearly as many homes and businesses these days. The yellow ribbons that were to have dotted the American landscape until every service man and woman returned home have dwindled to a precious few. The tears we shed freely for people we didn’t know have, for the most part, dried up.
Ten years of being protected from subsequent attacks on U.S. soil have enabled us to focus on our own individual interests.
Some of that is to be expected. No one can live life in a constant sense of disaster and crisis. There has to be a tolerable level of existence achieved.
But the pendulum has swung too far in many ways. The danger we face from these secret enemies, the ones we have been able to hold off for a decade, is as real as it was on Sept. 10, 2001. They are vengeful and patient. Like a cancer, they will lie in wait for an extended period of time, hidden and expanding, until they can strike again at the nation and people they hate. They are zealots for their bastardized view of a religion, a view they use to justify in their minds their criminal, murderous acts.
We learned a great many lessons on Sept. 11, 2001. We learned that we can stand together as a nation. We learned that our enemies can reach a cross vast oceans to hurt us. We learned that we have to be alert and diligent, not complacent. We learned that caring for each other, even people we don’t know, working together makes us stronger. And we learned that America is a nation we should be proud of.
Those are lessons worth remembering. And it shouldn’t take another attack to remind us.