In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, 20 years ago today, we Americans experienced a burst of patriotic fervor and national unity unlike anything seen since World War II.
Hijackers seized four commercial jets and used them as guided missiles to destroy the World Trade Center’s twin towers in lower Manhattan, and to attack the Pentagon in Northern Virginia. The fourth plane was bound for a target in Washington, but the passengers fought back and the hijackers crashed the jet in Pennsylvania.
It was a day unlike any other in American history, and it galvanized the public as nothing since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had pulled us into World War II.
Firefighters and police were applauded on the streets of New York and in Washington, and strangers wept at the funeral processions for the hundreds of first responders killed at the World Trade Center.
Within weeks, our service members were in Afghanistan hunting down al-Qaida and smashing the Taliban government that had harbored the terrorists. We were proud and heartened that our military could act so swiftly and decisively to avenge the attack.
It is easy to gloss over how divided our country had been in the years leading up to the 9/11 attack. The impeachment of President Clinton in 1998 had split us, and the impossibly close presidential election of 2000 had exacerbated the divisions.
George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote, but he won the electoral college when the Supreme Court halted the recount in Florida. Millions of Democrats bitterly complained that Bush and the court had stolen the election, but Al Gore conceded defeat.
At least in the beginning, Sept. 11 seemed to sweep all that away. Even on the first anniversary of the attack in 2002, a public opinion poll found that 55 percent of Americans believed that the country had changed for the better because of the attack.
Now, those days seem so long ago. As the old song says: “Twenty years, where’d they go? Twenty years, I don’t know.”
The United States is more deeply divided today than at any time at least since the Civil War.
A poll taken this week shows Americans increasingly believe the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had a more negative than positive impact on the country. More than 8 in 10 Americans say those events changed the country in a lasting way, with 46 percent saying the change was for the worse and just 33 percent saying it was for the better. Ten years before, about half had said the change was positive and half negative.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll showed an ideological split, with nearly 6 in 10 liberals saying the events changed the country for the worse (59 percent), compared with 44 percent of moderates and 45 percent of conservatives. Liberals have grown much more negative on this question since 2011, when 42 percent said the attacks changed the country for the worse.
The long war against terror has sapped the energy of the country in numerous ways. One cost of preventing another major terror attack has been an erosion in our privacy and our personal freedoms.
In addition, more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Mideast wars, and the end has been a bitter defeat with the Taliban outlasting us to regain Afghanistan.
The rise of social media has fostered an atmosphere of mistrust of government and institutions including the news media. False and misleading information can spread like wildfires, and conspiracy theories thrive. A significant number of Americans believe the outrageous theory that the 9/11 attack was done by the government itself, and almost half think the government is not telling the whole truth about the attacks.
A whole generation of Americans has come of age with no direct memory of the 9/11 attack, only with the messy aftermath. Many of the troops who were in Afghanistan at the end were babies when the war began, and some were not yet born.
Little wonder then that America is a different country than it was on that beautiful, cool day in September 2001 when this all began.