Twenty years ago I was working in West Valley City Hall’s Economic Development office. My appointment from a morning meeting had just left, and a coworker informed me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We turned a TV on in the conference room while a few of us gathered to watch the coverage. We quickly realized that this was not just a small plane confused and off course, then before our eyes on live TV we saw the second airliner careen into the second tower. Any productivity the rest of the day was shot as we were all glued to TV and news websites, worried, wondering, and speculating what would come next.
I remember estimating with some coworkers how many lives must have been lost, and that gratefully (and in large part because of the heroic first responders that day) the final death toll was much lower than it really should have been considering how many were in the towers that morning.
But it is after 9/11 that is the most poignant to me—the eerie silence in the skies for days (we live right under the landing approach to Salt Lake International Airport)—and the resumption of flights that would spook us when an extra loud plane descended in the weeks after.
It was the national unity we felt as Congress sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, as President Bush visited Ground Zero and spoke to the nation and world through that megaphone, and in months after as the flag from the hallowed rubble was reverently brought in during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
Like many Americans, I have watched the documentaries on TV about that fateful day, viewed the based-on-real-events movies, and guided my family on its pilgrimage to the World Trade Center site and museum. It is indeed a day of infamy we will never forget. It was a day of horror and a day of heroes.
Yet, I wonder if we have squandered the national unity after 9/12. Did too many Americans go on in the subsequent decades to put party over country? Did our national ambition for revenge and audacious hopes of nation-building perhaps hurt us worse than the terrorist attacks themselves?
While it is tragic that nearly 3,000 people were killed by Al-Qaeda on September 11th, Harvard’s Joseph Nye noted, “By some estimates, nearly 15,000 US military personnel and contractors were killed in the wars that followed 9/11.”
Financially, insurance claims for damages on 9/11 totaled over $40 billion and U.S. economic growth dropped 3% that year— “a small fraction of what was then a $10 trillion economy” observes Nye. Yet, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had an economic cost exceeding $6 trillion.
There are many lessons we must learn from 9/11 and its aftermath. America must be as strong as our servicemembers, as brave as the passengers on Flight 93, as selfless as the first responders running into danger to help others, as kind as those who lined up to donate blood. Yet, we must also learn that patriotism and peace have short shelf lives and are precious and fleeting.
To never forget 9/11 means to also never forget 9/12. We are Americans first. We are neighbors first. We are a national family first. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” declared Lincoln. Let us unite as Americans with strong resolve as we face the enemies of terrorism, of hate, of contempt, of prejudice, of unkindness, of selfishness.