Of all the events that have defined America and Americans in the 21st Century, none is more important than the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The impact of 9/11 on our time can hardly be exaggerated. It influences our daily lives, shapes our view of the world, and continues to impact our politics.
Just a few days ago, Congress sent President Barack Obama a bill that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. The president has threatened a veto because, he says, it would undermine the U.S. relationship with a critical U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Regardless of who is right, it demonstrates that 9/11 is not mere history, not a moment frozen in time, but a factor in current events. So is the detention camp at Guantánamo, which still holds 61 detainees and remains the focus of a bitter political controversy both in this country and around the world.
This is what makes 9/11 different from, say, Pearl Harbor. That was an act of war by another nation. It summoned a fierce response by a united American people that destroyed the aggressor and created a post-war world order. The anniversary of the attack every succeeding year became a day to look back, to pay tribute to the men and women of “the greatest generation” who responded heroically to the challenge.
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Because 9/11 is still so much a part of us, a full assessment must be left for future historians to weigh. For now, 15 years after the terror attacks in which 19 hijackers seized four U.S. airliners, killed 2,996 people and injured more than 6,000 others, it is enough to reflect on how we are still trying to cope with the aftermath of that terrible day.
Two presidential administrations have kept us safe from a repetition of a massive attack on the nation. Increased security screening is a major nuisance for air travelers. But despite occasional tests that have uncovered flaws in screening, the process has served as a deterrent to would-be terrorists.
Increased cooperation among national security agencies is designed to ensure that the bureaucratic jealousies that allowed some of the hijackers to slip through the pre-existing security screen are a thing of the past. That’s progress. But some believe government cyber-surveillance has gone too far. Government must protect us from vulnerabilities created by advances in modern communications technology, but we should all remain vigilant against unwarranted government snooping.
It is pointless to lament the loss of the sense of unity and national purpose that prevailed in the days and months following Sept. 11, 2001. But it is worth pondering how much of that unity was squandered in partisan arguments that, as in the case of immigration, amount to so much dangerous nonsense.
Attacks against Muslims and Muslim culture, calls by a presidential candidate to exclude Muslims from entering the country, irrational hatred leveled against women wearing traditional Muslim headwear — all of this shows that we often inflict more harm on ourselves than our enemies can inflict on us.
Despite these setbacks, the national spirit remains strong. The Twin Towers are gone, but the recent opening of the new One World Trade Center — the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere at 1,776 feet — reminds us that American resilience and steadfastness in troubled times remain an integral part of our national character.