How things have changed since that frightful day, Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 militants hijacked four airplanes in the U.S. They flew two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth, diverted from its target by passengers who rose up with the call "Let's roll," crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Almost 3,000 Americans from all walks of life died that day. Hundreds of thousands were injured.
First responders and volunteers rushed to the sites of the attacks to rescue the wounded. As for the rest of us, we mourned; we raged; we gave time and money to staunch the bleeding.
Many dropped everything and signed up for duty.
The world mourned with us, sickened that anyone would feel such hatred for "a shining city on a hill," as President Ronald Reagan put it, "whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere."
Then we pulled together. President George W. Bush affirmed that those who caused the attack would soon hear from us.
The rest of the world joined with us to condemn and fight terrorism. It looked as if we would rise like a phoenix from the fire.
Instead, we squandered the world's support by our investment in a misguided, disastrous war in Iraq that left thousands of Americans and Iraqis injured and killed. Nineteen years later, we're still entangled in chaotic Afghanistan with no ready resolution.
Many of our fellow Americans still bear the scars of those battles, on their bodies and in their minds.
Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks, was tracked down and killed by U.S. forces on May 2, 2011, in Pakistan. We have that.
But in the homeland, rather than bond together, we began to drive ourselves apart, fragmenting into sectarian groups, each suspicious of the other. Some expressed their fear and anger toward people who looked the wrong way or attended the wrong house of worship, forgetting that they, too, are Americans. To this day, many are comfortable expressing bigotry against people who had nothing to do with 9/11. Many define themselves by their political differences rather than unite in the values that we all share: a desire to live in peace and prosperity and see our children thrive.
This year as we prepare for a presidential election, it seems that divide is deeper than ever.
We face another deadly foe, the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 190,000 Americans — more than 63 times the number of those who died on 9/11 — and rather than pull us together, this airborne virus has been driving us apart.
In the early days, denial and incompetence led to confusion about the roles that should be played by various government agencies and actors. Partisans selfishly resisted measures that could prevent more deaths, egged on by, of all people, the president of the United States.
We'll have more to say about that on Sunday.
This is happening against the backdrop of growing awareness of racial disparities that have caused many to question our very society. Protesters have taken to the street, some few marring their cause by engaging in violent and destructive acts. They’ve been met by counterprotests that also at times have turned violent.
And political rhetoric has gotten out of hand, with false and outrageous claims flying about candidates’ beliefs. Spurious conspiracy theories have taken root and threaten to invade legislative offices.
Some Americans can’t be bothered to find the truth.
But all is not lost, not yet.
Even absent a vaccine, we have it within our power to defeat the spread of coronavirus with unity and discipline and a greater respect for science. We have it within our power to honor the health professionals, teachers and other public servants who have made heroic sacrifices to keep our society going. We have it within our power to become more aware of and sensitive to the racial disparities that undermine the American promise.
Sept. 11 will never be a day of celebration; it will always be a day to reflect and remember. It could also be a rallying cry to reject the false voices that seek to divide us and turn to those who would unite us in our shared humanity.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!