The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack is slipping slowly — but inevitably — from horror into history.
Nineteen years ago today, our country was riveted to our television screens watching over and over in dismay and disbelief the video of airliners crashing into the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York, into the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania.
It was a beautiful morning all along the East Coast, with crystalline blue skies and mild temperatures as the suicide bombers boarded their death ships in Boston, New York and Washington. By nightfall, with smoke from the still-burning fires pouring into the skies, 2,977 Americans were dead and our country had been transformed.
We have been at war almost constantly since that day, fighting the extremists who planned and launched that attack. Within a few months, we invaded Afghanistan to crush al-Qaeda and two years later Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. We reorganized our intelligence services, and our police agencies and so many other parts of government, especially with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
We surrendered some of our freedoms to keep us safe. Airport security has been ratcheted up and a new agency was created to screen people getting on airplanes to keep hijackers and bombers off.
A surveillance state has resulted, with the National Security Agency and other watchdogs keeping an eye on telephone and computer traffic, to identify and stop potential attacks before they happen. We have gotten used to having the government pore over aspects of our private lives. We have gotten used to living with a low-level caution and unease.
Border security has been increased, and illegal immigration has become a divisive political issue in large part because of the danger posed by terrorists of 9/11 who so easily entered the country to carry out their attacks.
With a few exceptions, the anti-terror professionals in the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and major police departments such as New York City have done what we asked of them, to prevent another major terrorist attack. They have uncovered and stopped some bad actors we know about and likely many, many more that we have never heard of.
And on a day in May 2011, the mastermind of the 9/11 attack was killed in a raid in Pakistan.
With the death of Osama bin Laden, it seems, the pain of that terrible day began to recede.
The 9/11 memorials were created in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. A new World Trade Center, a single tower, rose in lower Manhattan to replace the complex destroyed in the attacks.
Time has gone by. One concrete indication: Children born after that attack are starting college now and will be eligible to vote in the November presidential election.
Almost 7,000 American soldiers have died in the years they have been fighting in the Middle East wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other countries, and National Public Radio counted another 4,000 American contractors who perished while working for the Defense Department in the wars.
New horrors and new challenges have arisen in the nearly two decades since that terrible day. The latest is the coronavirus pandemic, which has burned across the globe, and nowhere more devastatingly than in the United States. More than 190,000 Americans have died in just six months from the disease. In most recent weeks, the death toll has been more than 6,000 people — twice the number that were killed in the 9/11 attack.
Next year, we will observe the 20th anniversary of the attack, reliving all the pain and the sorrow. But then it will grow ever more distant. Americans will remember 9/11 the way an earlier generation remembers Pearl Harbor, dimly or not at all.
For coming generations, it will cease to be our defining moment and it will become a part of history. For those who lived through it, they will never forget.