There are many emotions stirred up by memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago today. Horror and grief, at the death and destruction caused by three hijacked airliners at the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Awe and gratitude, for the courage, grace and resolve shown by the victims, including those who sacrificed themselves to bring a fourth hijacked plane down in a Pennsylvania field and likely save the U.S. Capitol building from attack, and by the first responders and others who threw themselves so selflessly into harm’s way in running toward the devastation to help. Pride, for the rededication to principle and purpose and the nationwide outpouring of aid and compassion that united Americans everywhere in the aftermath of the brazen attack on the country.
Today’s anniversary of that terrible day, however, marks the first one when we no longer have troops fighting in Afghanistan to prosecute the war against terror that grew out of the initial desire to seek retribution and justice for 9/11. For that, at least, we should also feel grateful, for the men and women of our armed forces who stepped up and served with distinction in difficult and treacherous conditions and that they no longer are in harm’s way, even though we must not forget the many who still suffer physically and mentally from their service. That the final days of our military presence in Afghanistan were needlessly messy and distressing is no fault of theirs — and certainly is a black mark against the current administration — nor can they be blamed for the far greater failure of the three prior administrations to bring an end to what is now clearly 20 years of failed effort at nation building.
As much as any other emotion, though, this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks stirs feelings of sadness. Sadness, at the human toll and devastation of that day. Sadness, at the military and civilian loss that followed in Afghanistan and, needlessly, in Iraq. Sadness, that the common purpose and resolve that so unified the country 20 years ago have been supplanted by a pervasive, pernicious divisiveness that, at its worst, led to an actual attack on the Capitol, not by foreign terrorists bent on destroying our democracy, but by Americans seeking to subvert it by force. And sadness that, unlike annual remembrances of another terrible attack on U.S. soil — at Pearl Harbor — which galvanized an earlier generation to defeat an even greater scourge, there seems so little on this anniversary to show for our efforts since 9/11, even if some measure of justice has been meted out to the perpetrators and their followers, and the risk of domestic attacks by foreigners has been controlled.
And yet, as we observed in this space on a much earlier 9/11 anniversary, optimism is as much an American characteristic as determination. So as we commemorate that tragedy of 20 years ago, let us also summon up hope. Hope, that we never forget the sacrifices of so many, both that day and in the wars that followed. Hope, that as a nation we have finally learned, as we failed to following years in Vietnam, that we can’t force our principles on everyone everywhere.
On Sept. 12, 2001, The Sentinel led off its second-day coverage of the 9/11 attacks by observing that, although the preceding day’s news was “about blood and death and disaster, today’s story is far different. It’s about national unity ... [and] an indomitable spirit that has carried the United States through more than two centuries. Today, America regroups.”
Twenty years later, we remember, but let’s also hope we regroup again.