It remains, 12 years later, a moment when history was split into "before" and "after." The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the heinous, inexplicable, cowardly acts designed to topple buildings and shatter psyches, remain a demarcation point in our history.
Since then, there have been interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There have been vast changes in our notion of the methods governments can use to protect citizens. And there have been many debates about the effectiveness of the Patriot Act, airport passenger screenings and, recently, spying on American citizens by the National Security Agency. All of these are the result — directly or indirectly — of terrorism perpetrated 12 years ago today.
Yes, much has changed since 9/11. And yet much hasn't.
As columnist Leonard Pitts wrote on that fateful day in 2001: "Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless. . . . As Americans we will weep, as Americans we will mourn, and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish."
The results have been mixed since then. Any history-altering event is followed by successes and mistakes, by two steps forward and one step back. We have had to recalibrate our ideas about security, and along the way we have quarreled amongst ourselves. Yet we remain united by one basic commonality — we are Americans.
Meanwhile, the threat has evolved. Osama bin Laden has been tracked down and killed by American forces. Al-Qaeda has been left trying to formulate new power bases in countries such as Syria. And numerous Middle East nations have faced possible power vacuums that could work against U.S. interests.
That international uncertainty is geographically distant, and such discord should not distract from the possibility of domestic threats. U.S. Army Medical Corps officer Nidal Hasan, a jihadist apparently working alone, recently was sentenced to death for murdering 13 soldiers at Ford Hood in Texas; Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American student, is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of attempting to detonate a bomb at Portland's Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 2010.
Such cases serve as reminders of the continuing need for vigilance. For example, while long lines and TSA pat downs at the airport are not pleasant, the fact remains that — despite numerous attempts — there has not been a successful terrorist attack on a U.S. airliner since 9/11.
Yet all of that would be meaningless if we neglected the true legacy of September 11, 2001. On that day, we vowed never to forget the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks. The 343 New York City firefighters and paramedics. The innocents who had peaceably boarded airplanes that soon were seized by madmen. The office workers who thought jumping from a high rise was their best option. Perhaps more important, we must never forget the roughly 1,500 spouses or partners who lost loved ones, or the estimated 3,000 children who lost parents; they are the ones who live with horrific memories day after day.
The attacks of 9/11 impacted Americans as individuals and collectively altered us as a nation. We mourned — for innocents lost and for innocence lost — and then we found resolve. And while that resolve has taken many forms over the past 12 years and will continue to evolve, it is certain to be fueled by memories of those who were lost.