Americans should never forget the senseless terror brought to their shores. But neither should they forget the incredible progress made since.
They called it the American Century. The Triumph of Democracy. The End of History.
Ten years after the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world stood at a crossroads. The United States and its allies had won, in every way and on every front. Inheriting domestic tranquility and a booming economy, newly-elected President George W. Bush promised smaller government, lower taxes, and lasting peace. Nothing seemed out of reach for America or the world at large.
It all vanished in an instant. In New York City, hijacked airliners destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A third aircraft struck the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., while a fourth careened into rural Pennsylvania. Nearly three-thousand lives were lost in one terrible day. For the first time since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the homeland stood besieged. America went to war, occupying Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly a decade. A world once comforted by American might turned fearful and angry. Economies across the globe sputtered and died. An “American Century” never felt more out of reach.
More than ten long years later, Americans remain haunted by the events of that September morning. The peace and prosperity of 2001 seem a distant memory, its promises of plenty a mocking reminder of what might have been. In those dark days following the attacks, people everywhere clung to what little hope they could muster. They prayed for answers, for mercy, and for the chance that tomorrow would dawn a brighter day. The years that followed were difficult, but we forged those hopes into reality.
The organization responsible for the attacks, al-Qaeda, is broken and on the run. The Afghan Taliban that once sheltered it has been devastated, exiled into the Pakistani badlands and hunted by coalition forces. Its leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden died at the hands of American forces who had already killed or captured most of his lieutenants. Through our efforts and the spontaneous eruption of the Arab Spring, many of the regimes sympathetic to bin Laden’s cause have collapsed. And though progress has been slow, the world no longer fears American power as it once did.
America, too, has recovered. Its enemies scattered and weakened, the dreaded second attack never came. A new World Trade Center towers above Manhattan, taller even than the twins it replaced. Against all odds, the national economy recovered to stand among the strongest in a stagnant West. America elected its first black president and for the first time considered a Mormon to replace him. The wounds may never fully heal, but survival in the face of such tragedy has proven powerful enough. Businessman Warren Buffet once noted that “it’s never paid to bet against America.” Though 9/11 shook the nation to its core, the ultimate fate of its perpetrators more than illustrate his point.
By fortune or providence, the United States has long triumphed where so many others might have fallen. Thirteen divided colonies defeated the greatest empire the world had ever known. An untested nation weathered Depression and war to destroy a genocidal madman. And in perhaps its greatest hour, it survived the horrors of September 11 through sheer force of national will. So many times throughout history, it might have been easier for Americans to abandon hope for despair. We never have.
The towers were rebuilt, new monuments raised, and our economies mended. Physically, little remains of that dark day in September of 2001. Spiritually, Americans cannot help but reflect and mourn the bright future that once seemed so certain. The nation should never forget what it lost that day, though neither should it forget how very far it’s come. This may never be an “American Century” as measured by spreadsheets and stock markets. But measured by steadfast perseverance against unspeakable evil, these hard years could not have been more American.
May we never forget.