Never Forget: How 9/11 Shaped a Generation of American Life

Twenty years ago, America awoke to a normal September morning sky. Children were sent off to school; parents commuted to work. To most, it started as just an average day in the United States.

Then came the news reports flashing on television as all eyes turned towards New York City. The images of thick black smoke and roaring fire flowing out of a symbol of economic power, darkening the once bright skies. Police and fire sirens blared across the background. The brief moments of uncertainty around what had happened was then shattered as America looked on in horror as a second shadow descended on the World Trade Center. Time stood still. More smoke and chaos clouded the air as first responders rushed to the aid of those trapped within the towers. Everyone watched in terror and sorrow as those very towers still full of human life collapsed into nothing more than the rubble of twisted steel and embers. On September 11, 2001, the lives of nearly three thousand mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends, were suddenly and tragically lost: forever altering the very fabric of what it meant to be part of American society.

In the two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America has undergone a total shift in how we not only view the world around us but also how we choose to live our very lives. 

Chief amongst these dramatic shifts have come in how we interact with our fellow Americans. Where in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the American people coalesced around one another in the spirit of community and healing, we have only become further separated by fear and distrust of one another. On September 12, 2001, our country became enveloped in a general sense of national patriotism. We came together beaten and bruised, but unbroken and full of resolve to persevere through the heartbreak. We lifted one another, checked in on our friends and neighbors, and flew American flags proudly in defiance of the hatred that had stolen the lives of those at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Flight 93. Over the years, the resolve against our enemies and fear for our countrymen have been twisted and manipulated into distrust and paranoia in our fellow Americans. Targeted attacks and profiling against our Muslim and Sikh communities, fear and xenophobia concerning refugees and immigrants, fierce partisan divides that tear apart entire families, and the rise of political terrorism: corruption of our values and ideals as a beacon of freedom has replaced the once shining semblance of unity that dominated the wake of 9/11. Susceptibility to fear of the other, rather than of fear for one another’s health and safety, brought our nation into a hole we are still struggling to crawl our way out of. Americans will forever long for a return to the community and bonds forged in the spirit of healing that symbolized the resiliency of our nation, but perhaps such a state is never to exist again. 

Trauma and tragedy united us on 9/11, yet today, through heartbreaking school shootings and devastating pandemics, we seem as numb as ever: distant and unwilling to come together to confront current and persisting horrors facing our country.

In addition to the furthering of divides within an American public once unified by great purpose and steeled will, the United States has also learned hard lessons concerning warfare in the twenty-first century. Whether it be the lack of an exit strategy concerning America’s longest war in Afghanistan, the inhumane abuses inflicted on our fellow human beings in the name of justice, or the unconstitutional mass surveillance both domestic and abroad, the military lessons of the past two decades have been of failure and disaster. In our effort to avenge the insurmountable loss of life, we lowered ourselves below the level of our enemies: betraying the basic values and fundamentals of American leadership. We waged a war of airstrikes leaving behind a trail of innocents in its wake. We tortured our enemies not to hear the real truth, but to hear the truth that we wanted to hear. We systematically infringed upon the constitutional rights of our citizens and citizens across the globe. In the end, what did those actions bring us other than momentary reprieves and pyrrhic victories? 

It’s beyond time to confront the sometimes hard truths of global affairs: the United States was horrifically wrong on the international stage for most of the past twenty years. From launching unnecessary and needlessly prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to crippling the livelihoods of those we once sought to liberate, American imperialism and our military industrial complex left behind only ruin in its wake.  Regretfully, we are only now starting to take accountability for the chaos and death that our leaders sanctioned, decades too late.

If we are to learn one lesson from the events of 9/11, it must be to never let our worst impulses or fears overtake the better angels of our nature. In times of great darkness and uncertainty, it is not more darkness that brings the dawn; it is the light of good people with good intentions that guide nations into a brighter tomorrow. We must never again let fear and anger cloud the values of our common humanity and shared community from which we all share and prosper. At its core, the lesson of 9/11 is not to just simply never forget the men and women who lost their lives, but to always honor their memories through the actions we take in the present. We have a solemn yet sacred duty to not only remember the bravery and sacrifice, but also to remember the capacity of our nation to stand up strong, unbent and unbroken and forge ahead with the linked hands of people from all faiths and backgrounds towards a better future.

Never forget who we are as Americans. Never let our darkest impulses in times of pain and grief consume who we once were or doom who we could one day be. Instead, hold our heads up high, reflecting the values of those who gave it all to save strangers and friends alike. 

That is truly the lesson of 9/11: we may be bruised, we may be battered, but we aren’t yet ready to throw in the towel. There’s so much hope and potential in our country yet to be realized, so many dreams and aspirations waiting to see the light of the dawn peak through the horizon after a dark and stormy night. We just have to be brave enough and willing enough to step outside of our doors, together, hand in hand, to build a better world.