Still, 19 years later, the lessons and the aftereffects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks continue to shape this country.
Today marks the anniversary of a moment when America’s notions of peace and security were shattered. Islamic terrorists hijacked four jetliners, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York and another into the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, apparently as passengers heroically tried to regain control of the plane.
The official death count of 2,977 underestimates the physical toll of the attack. Toxic dust unleashed by the collapse of New York’s Twin Towers resulted in health issues for first responders and workers. Many died as a result; many others live today with the consequences.
The loss was staggering, and continues to be. In a sense, the United States is still recovering from an attack that has altered our national psyche and our sense of place in the world. And as we rightly vow to never forget, we also must vow to assess our response to the attack.
Fortunately, such inhumanity has not been repeated on American soil, thanks to diligence and increased attention to national security. Among the logistical changes brought about by 9/11 was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, an umbrella organization for federal agencies tasked with protecting our nation. Another lingering change has been increased airport security, with the Transportation Security Administration being created in response to the attacks.
Unfortunately, a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan — where terrorists training camps were supported by the government — has turned into America’s longest war. About 8,600 American troops remain in that country, and President Trump said in July that the number will be reduced to 4,000 before the U.S. election in November. On the other hand, Trump has made many proclamations about withdrawing from Afghanistan that have yet to come to fruition.
In other words, we still are feeling the effects of 9/11. For Americans who are old enough to remember that day, the world is easily delineated between pre-9/11 and post-9/11. But roughly one-third of the U.S. population is under the age of 25, rendering the attacks as a history lesson passed along by their elders.
With each passing anniversary, it becomes increasingly important to reflect on what has been learned and to be active in preventing a repeat. As David Inserra wrote last year for the Heritage Foundation: “Two lessons stand out above the rest: Law enforcement and intelligence agencies must work together to thwart terror at home, and we must deny safe spaces to terrorists abroad. Yet over time, there is a tendency to forget these lessons.” Neglect is understandable, particularly at a time when a pandemic and civil unrest are ravaging the nation. But complacency is an invitation to those who wish us harm.
While these lessons must be remembered, perhaps the most pertinent is the sense of unity that emanated from the aftermath of the attacks. That spirit tapped into all Americans, serving as a reminder of our commonalities and a shared belief in our strength and resolve. Amid the horror of death, we found a mutual purpose that allowed our nation to move forward.
We long for a return to those days, knowing that tragedy is not a prerequisite for putting aside differences and recognizing that our bonds are stronger than our disparities. We hope such unity eventually will be the lasting impact of the 9/11 attacks.