9/11, 10 years on: The American people stood united and must again
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Today is the other date that will live in infamy, but, unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor, this date has become known by a simple shorthand: 9/11. Ten years after terror came to America on a clear and bright Tuesday morning, the nation looks back to mourn and take stock in multiple ways.
As with any momentous anniversary, it is an occasion for heart and head. In the past few days, the memories of the living and the remembrances of the dead have commingled in the search for meaning, something to pluck for the future from the wreckage of the past.
The sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the only historic equivalent to 9/11, was a simpler act to grasp. While the nation's sense of complacent safety was shattered by both, the Japanese were a clearly identifiable enemy. The 9/11 terrorists were Arabs but united less by nationality and more by a violent and far-from-universal understanding of the Muslim religion.
In 1941, the nation came together as much as it did in 2001, but the 9/11 consensus soon frayed. Ten years later, it doesn't take an anniversary to recall the mistakes committed in rashly lashing out at a perplexing foe -- the readiness to jettison civil liberties in the cause of security, the ill-considered invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which no longer had weapons of destruction and was not an accomplice in the 9/11 terror attacks, the prejudiced urge to paint all Muslims as the same (which President George W. Bush, to his credit, wisely tried to deflect). These are subjects still discussed on many days.
It doesn't take an anniversary to recognize the good that followed the evil day, too -- the dedication and expertise of the armed forces, the almost unanimous public support they have received, the general recognition of the perils of the world made so manifest on 9/11, all of which helped in the end to bring the master terrorist Osama bin Laden to justice at the hands of Navy SEAL Team 6.
But perhaps it does take an anniversary to reclaim the spirit of the nation that prevailed in the weeks after 9/11 when United We Stand was its true slogan. Sadly, we seem to have lost that spirit in blind partisan bickering. Today, some zealots would have the nation default on its obligations for political advantage, and people think of others as conservatives or liberals before they think of them as fellow Americans.
It was said in those dark days that the nation would never be the same, but 10 years on that seems only partly true. Certainly, the country is better prepared for trouble, more security-conscious (as any airport visitor knows, often to the point of irritation). But Americans are still Americans, endowed with certain principles not yet forgotten but in need of revival.
The terrorists never stood a chance of defeating America, but Americans can defeat themselves. Remember that in honoring the dead of ground zero, of the Pentagon and of Shanksville, Pa. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg long ago, the task now is "for us the living."
First Published September 11, 2011 12:00 am