The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It will be difficult, but maybe the nation can still unite around the 9/11 anniversary

At the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York on Sept. 11, 2020. (John Minchillo/AP)

Our nation’s collective reaction of shock, anger and grief over the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, may well represent the last time Americans were so completely united. Each year, when the anniversary of that horrible day rolls around, nearly everyone — whether left, right, Black, White, young, old — comes together to honor the victims, including the occupants of the twin towers and the Pentagon, the passengers inside the hijacked airplanes, and the amazing first responders who ran unhesitatingly into burning, collapsing buildings.

Just as millions of Americans did, I watched the events unfold on television. I’ll never forget the sickness in the pit of my stomach and the sense of helplessness as the twin towers collapsed, knowing that thousands of lives were being extinguished. The following days were filled with fear, trepidation and questions. How could this have happened? Who was responsible? Were more attacks coming? Americans were as one in our immense sadness and, very soon, our demand for justice.

I hoped never again to experience a similar visceral reaction to a national tragedy, but nearly 20 years later those same sickening emotions overcame me as I watched the storming of our U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. I was aghast as the multitudes overcame security to stream onto the Capitol grounds, hundreds violently forcing their way through doors as officers with guns drawn tried to protect the vice president, members of Congress and staff as a constitutionally mandated step in the peaceful transfer of power was underway.

When the occupation was complete, cameras showed thousands on the Capitol steps, many proudly waving Confederate flags, Trump flags — and, yes, American flags, the bearers apparently oblivious to that bit of irony. The questions flooded anew. How could this happen? How would it be resolved? Would they set fire to the building? Would people die?

The 9/11 attack was a shock, but what was not surprising were the perpetrators, longtime avowed overseas enemies of the United States. The Jan. 6 assault, while, thank God, ultimately not nearly as deadly or destructive, was in some ways more alarming because it was perpetrated by Americans at the instigation of the president of the United States, a president I and millions of other Americans had supported but whose refusal to participate in the peaceful transfer of power ignited this unthinkable moment.

Many of us think that the events of Jan. 6 should have united Americans in shock and outrage in the same, nearly unanimous manner as Sept. 11. But that wasn’t the case. Rather than uniting us, the attack on the Capitol has been one more divisive flash point in a fractured nation. Many Americans deny that Jan. 6 is comparable to Sept. 11 in any way, usually pointing to the vast disparity in death and destruction, and even defending it as a patriotic effort to “stop the steal.”

But as David Mastio wrote in USA Today in May, “As surely as the terrorists of 9/11 wanted to tear down American democracy in 2001, the terrorists of Jan. 6 want to tear down our democracy as well, even as they pose as its defenders.” Still, it has become clear there will be no national agreement on Jan. 6.

Which leaves us to unify around 9/11 — and even that’s in danger now, at least on the 20th anniversary next month, threatened by our terribly bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Biden is taking the heat, and rightfully so, because he’s making the calls now. But despite insistence from the right, there’s no real reason to believe things would have gone differently if Donald Trump were the president, following through on his withdrawal pledge.

As the solemn 9/11 anniversary looms, it is overshadowed by the Afghanistan tragedy and consequent blame game. President George W. Bush is being blamed for invading in the first place, President Barack Obama for claiming combat was over when it wasn’t, Trump for committing to an ill-conceived withdrawal and Biden for botching the withdrawal itself. But Afghanistan has long been an unsolvable enigma and a losing foreign policy pawn. Every nation in modern history that has attempted to reshape it for its purposes has exited in shame, leaving misery behind.

Our obvious mistakes in how we exited Afghanistan are worth exploring. But the United States is in desperate need of at least a temporary period of unification. We have a few short weeks to table our divisive and polarizing politics and turn our collective attention to remembering that horrific day 20 years ago, grieving for both the loss of the victims and our sense of invulnerability, while uniting in our pride of living in what is still the greatest nation on earth. Are we up to the task?