Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began like any other day for most Americans with no one prepared for the cataclysmic events that would occur before some had even finished their morning coffee.
Baby boomers, at the peak of their power, continued to maintain bragging rights as America’s largest living adult generation – a distinction which they would not yield to millennials until 2019.
Smartphones had not been invented and despite its growing popularity, the internet counted more as a luxury item than an essential with many businesses and most households still without the technological wonder.
As adults headed off to work and children boarded buses on their way to school, radios pumped out the sounds of an emerging “girl power” lineup including Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor,” Janet Jackson’s “All for You,” Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’” and J. Lo’s “I’m Real” remixed with the rapping skills of Ja Rule.
Still, for all its idealism and promises of justice and equality as espoused within the documents composed by the nation’s Founding Fathers, in 2001, political correctness had not erased generations of institutionalized racism, sexism and the frequent marginalization of others including the handicapped and homosexuals.
But in an instant, things would change forever.
As the clock struck 8:45 a.m. (EST), a series of suicide attacks against targets in the U.S. carried out by 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda began with the hijacking of four airplanes.
Two of those passenger jets each struck one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City [NYC] with a third hitting the Pentagon just outside of Washington, D.C.
A fourth plane crashed, after several brave passengers failed in their heroic efforts to regain control of the aircraft, in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 44 of those aboard. And while its intended target has never been confirmed, theories suggest that its goal could have been the U.S. Capitol, the White House or one of several nuclear power plants located along the eastern seaboard.
Passenger jets quickly became converted into guided missiles.
In the end, 2,996 people died in the 9/11 attacks, including the 19 terrorists. Among the dead: 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 NYC police officers and another 189 at the Pentagon including 64 on the airliner which struck the building.
In retaliation, the U.S.. led by then-President George W. Bush, launched a flurry of initiatives to combat terrorism.
America’s “War on Terrorism” had begun.
As for Muslim Americans, in the days that followed 9/11, hate crimes against Muslim Americans – once the second-least reported among religious bias incidents in the U.S. – would suddenly become the second-highest reported as Muslims became our “common enemy.”
Now, 20 years later, we have yet to fully understand how 9/11 changed the lives of American troops and their families as well as millions of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some changes have been swift with their impact being felt almost immediately. Others have caused more of a ripple effect – slow and insidious in nature.
Nonetheless, America would undergo a paradigmatic shift in how we view ourselves and the world and how we treat our friends and those who we deem to be our enemies.
As Americans gather over the next few days to read the names of the fallen, to light candles and hold vigils, to share newly-produced documentaries or to unveil works of art that cause us to reflect on the events of 9/11 and to mourn the lives of those who died, what have we really learned?
Some would argue that as 9/11 becomes more of a historical event and less of something that Americans actually experienced and survived, we have grown more intolerant of others – even other Americans whose religion, skin color, place of birth or sexual orientation differ from our own.
Yes, we have made amazing advances in science and technology with people living longer, healthier lives – despite the unprecedented challenges we now face due to the global pandemic.
But partisan politics, juxtaposed with a Democratic party often unable to resolve its own internal differences, have led to a stalemate on issues that need to be immediately resolved: devising methods to slow the impact of climate change, fortifying the infrastructure, removing any obstacles that might keep one from voting, finding a solution to gun violence and mass shootings and once and for all allowing women control over their own bodies count as just a few of the more pressing agenda items.
Who could have imagined on 9/11 that a segment of Americans, with the blessing of the then-sitting president, would attack the U.S. Capitol with aims to injure if not kill another segment of Americans?
In the days that followed 9/11, Americans chose to put aside our many differences and come together as one nation.
Today, we have become a country as intolerant and divided as the America of the 1960s when anger over the war in Vietnam and the fight for civil rights seemed to have our nation standing at the precipice of destruction.
We need to recapture that unity that made Americans forget their differences – when we resolved that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few.
What we do not need and can ill-afford is another 9/11.