Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the memory is fresh for anyone who sat in horror before a TV set and watched it unfold.
But 9/11 is far more than a terrible memory. The aftershocks of that event still resonate today.
The spectacle of two passenger jets flying into the iconic towers of the World Trade Center in New York is unforgettable, and the ensuing collapse of the towers, packed with businessmen and women and first responders, was horrifying to behold. The Pentagon was also struck by terrorists and a fourth jet, its target unknown, crashed in rural Pennsylvania after an apparent struggle among passengers and four terrorists.
Americans were accustomed to seeing footage of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, and participating in wars on foreign soil, but this was America under assault on its own soil. It was horrific, unimaginable, and it shook the nation to its roots. It is still shaken to this day.
The United States was truly united in the aftermath of those attacks. Government officials, aid agencies, first responders and average people from all over the country mourned with New York City and reached out to help, many coming to the devastated trade center site to search for survivors. It would be wonderful to be able to say that a legacy of that horrible day is maintained unity but, in the midst of a dispiriting presidential campaign, the nation is divided by anger, resentment and bitterness.
The attacks led inevitably to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, where September 11 architect Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were based. Less inevitably, and inexcusably, the Bush-Cheney administration in 2003 decided to cynically take advantage of America's fear and pain by invading Iraq, a nation that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, on totally false pretenses. The White House's doomed experiment in nation- and democracy-building cost the lives of nearly 4,500 U.S. servicemen and women, and the failure to fund wars with tax hikes contributed to the Bush-era expansion of the deficit.
President Obama launched the mission that killed bin Laden and al-Qaida was scattered, though it remains a threat. The Afghan war itself, absent a mission, lingers on, the longest war in American history.
The disastrous war in Iraq created a vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State (ISIS), which has supplanted al-Qaida as the world's foremost terrorist group. ISIS is the Bush White House's Iraq legacy, and while the group poses no threat to the existence of the United States, its actions in the Middle East and its shameful attacks abroad have shaped the ugly rhetoric of the current campaign.
In the immediate wake of September 11, 2001 there was fear-mongering and shameful bashing of Muslims, but thanks to Donald Trump and elements of the far-right, along with the advent of social media and the trolls who poison it, both are worse today. Has America grown this mean and cowardly 15 years after the grace and heroism demonstrated on 9/11?
President Obama has brought the fight to ISIS without sending thousands of troops to the Middle East, which the American people won't support. The fight also involves domestic vigilance, but domestic fear-mongering and stereotyping of Muslims plays right into the hands of ISIS, which is happy to use both as recruiting tools. The demonizing of Muslims refugees and the calls for a religious test to gain admittance to the nation are not only counterproductive they are counter to everything America has long stood for.
"The terrorists win if ..." has become a cliche over the last 15 years but the terrorists do win if Americans become victims of terror and in our fear sacrifice our principles. Doing so would be an insult to all of those who died on September 11, 2001. Election Day will reveal much about whether the nation will maintain its pride and its ethics while fighting terror or whether it will sacrifice both because it is scared.