THE MONTHS after the 9/11 attacks were a time of shock and apprehension. Anthrax attacks. War in Afghanistan. Sudden airport evacuations. Suspicion in every security line.
Gradually, fears receded, and now, emerging from a decade-long tunnel, most Americans should acknowledge that much has gone right. Few would have predicted that there would have been no further large-scale terrorist attacks on American soil. The occasional patdown aside, most people have adapted well to living with greater precaution. There have been significant victories against Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is dead.
The national sense of security remains fragile. Terrorism is now just one of many threats that can destabilize life in the United States. Viruses, catastrophic weather events, revolutions, sovereign debt defaults - all can reverberate across borders in a matter of minutes. Fear of terrorism may have receded, but fear itself remains.
And there is one aspect of those tragic months of 2001 that is regrettably absent today. After 9/11, Americans confronted their challenges in a unified manner. That collective spirit - that sense of pride and patriotism - no longer strikes the same chord. The Iraq war, which began just a year and a half after the destruction of the World Trade Center, divided public opinion and set off a draining debate about the true lessons of 9/11. The debate has petered out, but the war’s legacy of division remains.
National crises usually bring out the best in people. Through four decades of the Cold War, Americans endured periods of extreme social strife and profound disagreement. But they remained aligned in respect for their own system of government. Even in the most clamorous Vietnam protests or civil rights marches, Americans took pride in shared traditions of free speech and open government. Ultimately, the vast majority wanted to show the American system in the best light; the clearly visible alternative of the Soviet Union, then governing half of Europe in a very different fashion, held this country together.
For a while, it seemed that global terrorism would do the same. American commitments to equal rights, open government, and religious freedom, at home and abroad, would be the eternal retort to Islamic extremism. And just as the Cold War sparked a renewal of core national values, Americans of the post-9/11 years would go forth in a spirit of appreciation for all they shared.
It hasn’t worked out that way. But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, and people wake up to the real cost of political stasis at home, there remains a shared memory of grief and commitment.
National unity isn’t expressed by the absence of disputes. It can’t bring about agreement on tax policy or Medicare. It isn’t a virtue that can be claimed by one group alone. It’s something that’s felt. It’s a sense of identity. It’s a reservoir of strength. It’s the confidence that, at the end of each day’s struggle, all will remain bound together in common purpose and good will. At this moment, the nation needs more of that kind of unity.