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As we mark the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the focus this year is less on external threats than on deep internal divisions that have heightened fears as the U.S. struggles to contain a viral pandemic.
As the Sept. 11 attacks brought America together with a focus on our resilience and optimism, this year has tested our resolve to unite against a common enemy. This year, an unseen virus has killed more than 190,000 Americans, orders of magnitude more than died as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead of unity, we have reacted with division. We can’t even agree on the severity of COVID-19 and whether steps, like wearing masks and limiting public gatherings, are appropriate and effective.
One of the enduring and unifying lessons from Sept. 11 was the power of selflessness and bravery. We see echoes of the first responders running into the Twin Towers in the medical personnel, first responders and other front line workers helping people every day during the pandemic. That’s the kind of selflessness and togetherness Americans demonstrated 19 years ago — and that we honor and reflect on at this time each year.
“The U.S. and its democracy are defined by resilience. It was resiliency that carried us through the dark days after Sept. 11,” the editorial board wrote a year ago. “There have been missteps — the invasion of Iraq, the Patriot Act and, more recently, the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from majority Muslim countries — but, mostly, Americans today remain optimistic, welcoming and engaged in the world. That is what makes America great.”
A year later, those words feel a bit saccharine, even naive.
Sure, there are signs of resilience and optimism — Americans have come together to help one another through the pandemic, companies have quickly pivoted to make new and needed products, millions of Americans have condemned racism and inequality.
Yet, there are long standing divisions, and new ones, that are driving us apart.
Most Americans appear to be following — and support — local, state and federal requirements to wear face masks, to stay at least six feet apart and to limit gatherings, especially indoors to slow the spread of coronavirus. However, loud factions continue to chafe at and ignore these requirements, sometimes with tragic consequences.
President Donald Trump, who downplayed the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., has contradicted his own public health experts and not followed masking and distance requirements. As a result, the U.S. has the highest number of infections in the world.
The president, seeking to capitalize politically on the chaos, warns of violent, left-wing mobs destroying U.S. cities and threatening the suburbs. He has not condemned the violence against those protesting for racial equality and justice, even when people have been killed.
On social media, what were once valid differences of opinions and perceptions, are now pointless arguments that devolve into name calling and threats, including the now ubiquitous threat to get an opponent “canceled.”
We don’t mean to overblow the negativity and divisiveness that feels pervasive now, maybe that’s just a consequence of coronavirus fatigue. But, 19 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, it feels like the lessons of those dark days — that America remained a beacon for much of the world, that we could welcome a diverse population, that we could lead global movements for good — have diminished.
America, as it often does, faces stark choices. We have faith that, although the current times feel dark and divisive, the American people can once again rally together to challenge the threats facing us and our nation.