Few tragedies have shaken the nation and the world more than the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It has now been 15 years since al-Qaida terrorists aboard four hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington and in a Pennsylvania field. And since that awful morning, Americans have felt the sobering impact in their daily lives and endured two wars, a new era of eavesdropping and a battle against pro-Islamic extremists that shows no sign of abating.
A nation ripped apart by the searing images of the burning towers, by sorrow and anger, by fear and uncertainty, gave rise to a momentary sense of unity and purpose that the nation has not experienced since. President George W. Bush captured that spirit in the first few days from ground zero, grabbing a bullhorn and declaring, with firefighters around him, that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
It is incredible how much has changed. As the Pew Research Center reported last week, the attacks remain a defining memory for Americans; nine in 10 adults today say they remember exactly where they were or what they were doing at the time. Yet the nation and the world over that same period have become very different places. The civil wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, and despite the prolonged deployment of American forces, security in both places remains in a persistent state of flux. The international coalition to fight Taliban and al-Qaida extremists has splintered under more recent setbacks, from the collapse of the Arab Spring and the Mideast refugee crisis to a wave of isolationism sweeping the United States and Europe.
America's war fatigue and its apprehension about security have, not surprisingly, assumed center stage in the presidential campaign, as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fight to overcome their huge disapproval ratings in the polls. Pinched between the hawkish posture and her regret over her 2002 Senate vote to authorize war with Iraq, Clinton has sought a middle ground, vowing only limited U.S. military support for the global anti-terror campaign. Trump, mired in ego and ignorance, has incorrectly said he opposed the Iraq war from the start and now claims he can refashion the fight against ISIS within 30 days of taking office.
No wonder, then, that Pew found a strikingly partisan divide in American views on national security. Republicans say the threat of another major attack has risen during Barack Obama's presidency, while Democrats say the nation is more secure than it was under President Bush. Forty percent of the public say the ability of terrorists to launch another strike is greater than it was on 9/11, the highest share expressing that fear over the past 14 years.
The comity of those early days after the attacks is long gone, even as the nation has come fully to grips with the reality that fighting pro-Islamic extremism will require more risk and sacrifice across a wider front. The fissures within the militant movement, Russia's armed intervention into Syria, the internal debate over NATO's relevance, Iran's intentions in adhering to the nuclear deal — these are political and security distractions that prevent the United States and its allies from fighting ISIS and other extremists in some clean, linear fashion. There is a greater appreciation, after the flawed case for war in Iraq, not to get the facts wrong. And though some view caution as paralysis, there still is no stomach in either party for broadening America's military role on the ground.
The television retrospectives over the past week have pointed to the worst and the best of that day — the airliners coming in low, the towers crumbling down, the incredible heroics by passengers, firefighters and police as they all put their own lives at risk. That day brought America a clear sense of purpose, a belief it could right an injustice and move on. This 15th anniversary, like all others, is a hallowed occasion to mark the loss all Americans still feel, and to remember we are strongest when we are united in a common purpose.