By Greg Ehrie , Vice President of Law Enforcement & Analysis at ADL and former U.S. Air Force officer. This opinion piece was published on newsweek.com.
Twenty years ago, we witnessed a defining moment in American and world history. The terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 changed a generation and shaped our world like few events ever have, or ever will. With the passing of time, a new generation forges ahead and creates their own future while we commemorate the victims and struggle with the lessons of our past. The world has now watched as the war which the attacks started has come to an ignominious end. And those of us who lived through that day and saw an unspeakable tragedy unite our nation now wonder how—in one lifetime—we have drifted so far apart.
As a first responder to what became known as Ground Zero, my memories are as vivid today as they were then: The sights, smell, and sounds remain impossible to describe. For years, the unspoken and inexplicable rule amongst my colleagues was that you did not talk about 9/11.
Year later, as many of us became sick, we started to share our memories, most often about the acts of humanity we had seen. At a moment when the country should have been on its knees, we recalled acts of unbelievable strength and compassion. Ordinary citizens, some still in their business attire, side by side with cops and firemen, digging through the rubble, frantically searching for survivors. Business owners throwing open their doors and handing out supplies. Small private boats crossing the Hudson River from New Jersey to help evacuate people trapped in Lower Manhattan.
As the days and weeks unfolded, Americans lined the streets leading to the wreckage from dawn to dusk, handing out water, holding up signs of encouragement, stopping first responders and asking, "What can I do?" "How can I help?"
An act planned by a small group of extremists and designed to rip our country apart had the opposite effect. America demonstrated its best self; we displayed our capacity for courage and compassion with one another.
That courage and compassion foreshadowed our resolve to overcome our differences, come together, and unite against those that would do us harm. In the darkest of times, we looked beyond labels and saw each other as Americans, united. Race, religion, or any of the other traits used to divide us became irrelevant. We just showed up for one another to honor our fallen, protect our freedom, and defend our democracy.
That isn't to say that racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and other forms of hate didn't exist, or were not as prevalent as they are today. Systemic racism is inextricably linked with our nation's history. And sadly, anti-Muslim bias rose sharply in the immediate wake of 9/11, including violent attacks on Muslims and their places of worship.
Still, it is impossible to overlook how most Americans came together in our time of crisis.
But not quite a full generation later, we find our nation at perhaps its most divided since the Civil War. Politics has devolved to name calling and overt separatism. First responders who were once applauded for their service and courage are now faced with calls for the total dissolution of their agencies. Social media platforms amplify conspiracy theories and angry rhetoric to an unprecedented scale.
And instead of the time-honored tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, our Capitol was attacked by an angry mob of insurrectionists attempting to prevent the certification of electoral votes.
When I try and talk to my sons, both in their 20's, about what I experienced that day two decades ago, it's difficult for them to even comprehend; they see the America we have become, not the country we were. An attack from outside our borders brought us together; the force that divided us came from within. And we again find ourselves at a critical, defining moment.
I still believe in my country; as we learned two decades ago, the resiliency of the American spirit cannot be underestimated. Even in the aftermath of the attacks, signs of who we can be and should be are there.
For the first time in world history, we have brought our collective knowledge and resources together to fight back against an international pandemic. The majority of Americans are wearing masks and applauding the medical professionals fighting this disease. The National Guard, the Cajun Navy, and countless unknown heroes are pulling people out of submerged homes along the Louisiana coast. Our military, regardless of how one may view the decisions of civilian leadership, evacuated over 100,000 people from Afghanistan in just over two weeks' time. Average citizens have donated to refugee efforts, prayed for their safety, and wept as we watched the flag-draped coffins of 13 American service members who made the ultimate sacrifice return home in the most solemn of ceremonies.
The oldest of these heroes was ten on 9/11; the youngest hadn't been born yet. Selflessly, they made the ultimate sacrifice to protect others and defend our way of life.
As we reflect on this milestone anniversary and honor those who perished and those who continue to succumb to the aftereffects of that tragic day, let us also recall the characteristics that allowed us to rise above the horror and become a stronger nation.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "a house divided against itself cannot stand," a truth that is as real today as it was then. Twenty years ago, we showed the world what it meant to be the United States of America. We can be that country again.
Greg Ehrie is Vice President of Law Enforcement & Analysis at ADL (the Anti-Defamation League). He is a former U.S. Air Force officer and 29-year veteran of government service, including 22 years with the FBI.