Ten years ago, on a beautiful blue-sky morning in New York City, America lost its innocence. Nineteen men full of hate and disdain destroyed it, one plane at a time, in under 80 minutes. Nearly 3,000 victims who perished in the crashes at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field and their families paid the ultimate sacrifice. But all Americans awoke the next day full of fear and anger, their world view inescapably altered by Sept. 11, 2001.
A decade later, the nation is still coping with the changes triggered by the attacks. There has been the incredible cost in human and financial capital of an ill-conceived war in Iraq that is winding down and an ongoing one in Afghanistan. More than twice as many Americans have died at war than on Sept. 11, including Pfc. Christophe J. Marquis of Tampa, a 40-year-old father and husband who died just last week from injuries suffered in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. The veterans who have come home — many of them reservists — often face a lifetime of mental and physical scars from a public service they never envisioned would include multiple tours of duty in battle zones.
In ways large and small, Americans now routinely prepare for the worst and accept the hassle that requires: removing shoes to pass through airport security, submitting to patdowns before Tampa Bay Buccaneers games, providing multiple documents to renew Florida drivers' licenses and training our local police to become counterterrorism experts. We are not so naive as to think we have seen the last terrorist attack. But thankfully, through hard work, extraordinary expense and surely luck, we have so far managed to stave off another attack on American soil.
Gone with the obliviousness to the possibility of such violence is the political unanimity after the 9/11 attacks. Where Congress once stood on the steps of the Capitol to sing God Bless America in defiance of Osama bin Laden, its members now retreat to partisan caucuses to assign blame for an unprecedented national debt or decry health care reform or tax breaks for the rich. Missing is the resolve to play large on the international stage, even as the Middle East, the region that gave birth to those who attacked the United States, awakens with dreams of democracy. Even the capture and death of bin Laden earlier this year provided only a momentary truce in a depressing rhetorical loop.
The cynics point to this changed America as evidence that the lessons of 9/11 have been lost, that a nation once united in grief and patriotism is now just bitter and divided, weary and weaker. But in the midst of our greatest vulnerability, America's remarkable resilience was reaffirmed. In the darkest hour, the thousands of men and women who felt bin Laden's wrath demonstrated uncommon strength and humanity, and Americans responded with compassion and resolve to care for fellow citizens and defend the nation.
Those Americans included 363 New York City firefighters and 40 police officers who rushed into the World Trade Center wreckage that morning and never returned; two New York City Transit Authority workers who climbed up and down 14 flights of stairs in the north tower to pry open doors to allow scores to escape but were never seen again; the countless terrified individuals on the stairs of those burning towers who let those older or more injured pass; the brave passengers aboard Flight 93 who apparently thwarted a final attack on the U.S. Capitol but died in a Somerset County, Pa., field alongside their hijackers.
This is the legacy of Sept. 11 that is far more worthy of our nation: In the midst of hell, humanity persevered.
Today at ground zero in New York City, the names of all 2,997 victims of the attacks will be read aloud. They will echo on a nation inevitably changed but far from lost. By nearly any measure, America remains a beacon of freedom, rooted in self-determination and individual rights, with a citizenry committed to democracy and, in times of crisis, each other.
It is an ethos bin Laden detested but he could not stop. He could not even keep it from spreading with the arrival earlier this year of the Arab Spring. That development — more than the daily discord of American politics or the indignity of enhanced security measures — is an affirmation of democracy. While America faces considerable challenges, its very foundation was tested 10 years ago today in ways not seen for generations. That foundation remains solid, even amid great economic uncertainty and political gridlock. Today we honor those who lost their lives to terrorists, pause to reflect upon how the nation has endured, and recommit to the freedoms and values upon which it was founded.