Fifteen years ago, on a sun-dappled Tuesday morning, this nation was in shock.
The horror was captured in the stunned look of incomprehension on President George W. Bush’s face as he sat in an elementary school classroom in Florida after an aide whispered to him that the World Trade Center in New York had been hit by an airplane.
It quickly became obvious that the country itself was under attack.
Two World Trade Center towers, symbols of America’s great wealth and power, toppled in mind-numbing slow motion, killing 2,606.
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Another hijacked plane was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon, where 125 people died.
And Flight 93, commandeered by terrorists, was diverted from the U.S. Capitol by its passengers and crew, who became heroes as they died in Shanksville, Pa.
Two hundred and sixty-five Americans died on the four planes hijacked by terrorists. More than 6,000 Americans were injured on that devastating morning, many still struggling today with injuries and health effects from the toxic dust that rained down on New York.
A reclusive Saudi Arabian named Osama bin Laden, leader of a terrorist faction known as al-Qaida, had orchestrated the attacks, snaring America’s innocence and setting off a chain of events that changed the world.
The nightmare became known simply as 9/11.
Nearly every adult who lived through the horror remembers with great clarity what he or she was doing and how it felt to realize what had happened.
Tears were shed in every country on earth as the world mourned with us.
In the United States, everyone was shaken. Everyone felt vulnerable. Everyone believed life would never again be the same. People yearned for normalcy and began to cherish everyday moments. They hugged their children and worried how to discuss such a cataclysm with them. Strangers were kind to each other. There was a national unity that folded Americans into each other.
Bush went to a Muslim mosque and vowed the nation would not blame an entire religion and would not turn its enmity on people innocent of the hatred that caused the attacks.
But amid the tears and prayers and planning for memorials came the anger and vows of revenge. The nation revamped its homeland security, and thousands of hours of investigations commenced. Blame was cast. Politicians resumed their games. A war on terror was planned. Thousands of troops went to battle in Afghanistan and Iraq.
More than 6,800 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands more have been injured permanently. About 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
An estimated 6,900 American military contractors have died in the war. At least 43,000 uniformed Iraqis and Afghans have died. Thousands and thousands of citizens have died in the two war zones.
Bin Laden is dead. Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11 but was a cruel dictator who murdered his own people in Iraq, is dead. American soldiers still fight. The Middle East is still in chaos.
And America’s unity is gone.
A new evil has been spawned from the wars – the Islamic State. Like a horror movie’s alien monster, it is growing and spreading around the world, devouring hundreds of young men and women with its jihadist message of violence and hatred. Thousands of U.S. drones target Islamic State warriors, and still they unleash terror and mayhem and kill innocent people.
What can we do?
We must be kind and grateful to our veterans. We cannot let them suffer, physically or mentally. We must provide them with jobs and hope. We must try to understand what agonies they have suffered in wars that lasted longer than any others Americans have fought.
We must not ever again go to war for the wrong reasons, as we did in Iraq. Our soldiers, male and female, are precious. Old men and women in Washington must never take lightly their votes to send young Americans to their deaths.
We must never forget 9/11 and its lasting heartaches. Yet we must remember forever the goodness it brought out in thousands and thousands of us.
We must rekindle that unity and know that we are Americans, blessed with morality and purpose and guided to work together, all for one and one for all.
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.