Twenty years after 9/11, America is divided more than ever

A message left on the fence at the memorial site of United Airlines Flight 93 during a 9/11 memorial ceremony September 11, 2008 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. An official memorial to the victims of 9/11 and United Airlines Flight 93 is set to open in Shanksville on the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

I remember Sept. 11, 2001 vividly. Like everyone else who was alive on that day, I remember most of all that it was a beautiful, crisp early autumn morning in the nation’s capital. 

I was a 30-something-year-old attorney — a lobbyist working on Capitol Hill, and was headed to the train station to pick up my friend, then Pennsylvania State Republican Co-Chairwoman Renee Amoore (now deceased) who was coming to Washington to testify in an Education Committee Hearing with former First Lady Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush was working with then U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy on bipartisan legislation regarding our nation’s education system. 

As fate would have it, I was running late to the train at Union Station in D.C. My former sister-in-law called me and asked if I had seen the TV. I said no; I was late and running out the door. My apartment was down the street, literally from the Pentagon in Alexandria, Virginia off of Seminary Road. I quickly turned on the TODAY Show and saw the concern on Katie Couric‘s face.

Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Fabina Sbina/ Hugh Zareasky/Getty Images)

Then, within moments, I saw the second Twin Tower in New York City struck by the a commercial plane. And worst of all, about 20 minutes or so later, I heard this awful whizzing sound and explosion. I felt the blast — car alarms went off on the street — my Blackberry was going wild. I dropped the phone (my homeline) ran downstairs and outside, where I could see the black smoke in the air. My heart sank. I knew we had been hit.

In the hours and days that followed 9/11, I was deeply moved as an American at the unity on display. There was no division. There was only unity — there was only e pluribus unum, out of many, one. I’ll never forget California U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (no President George W. Bush fan) offering her support to the president that fateful day, even though she would later be one of 11 House members to oppose going to war with Iraq.

As a sister, I was alarmed because my younger brother had just finished OCS and was a newly-minted 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Army. He was deployed shortly thereafter to the Middle East. Luckily, my brother returned home safely to his wife and baby daughter. We were among the lucky ones, however, others were not.

What struck me then in 2001, is what haunts me now in 2021: America always came together whenever we were attacked or facing a foreign policy crisis. Politics stopped at the water’s edge. No political party. Not race. Not gender or class separated us. We all put country first. We all rallied around our president regardless of his party and whether we voted for him or not. Yes, of course, we had political fights, name-calling and mud-slinging. That has all existed since the founding of the Republic. Just go study the election of 1800. Regardless of these divisions, we were always proud to be Americans first. And we always knew what the line was drawn in our politics and how not to cross it when national interests were at stake. 

I fear those days are gone. 

Fast forward to today, 2021, as we honor the 20th anniversary of the horrible morning of 9/11 and the days after. America is a deeply divided anation. Voting Rights are under assault. Women’s reproductive rights are under assault. The nation’s 45th president, Donald Trump, ushered in an era of hate, name-calling, incivility, misinformation, gaslighting, lies, indecency and racial tropes that we haven’t seen since the dark days of post-slavery and civil war with President Andrew Johnson in the 1860s.

President Donald Trump speaks at the “Stop The Steal” Rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Twenty years later, we are finally out of Afghanistan, but tragically the Taliban, who we vowed to get rid of back then, is now firmly rooted in control of the nation once again. A lot has happened in 20 years for all us, but what has changed most of all is the way we treat each other as Americans. 

As we reflect on this somber occasion and the lives lost in New York City and Washington, D.C. we are once again reminded of the fragility of life. And how in one instance our lives can be radically altered. My prayer and my hope is that a new generation of leaders, born in the wake of 9/11 will emerge and lead us to a better place. We need a new kind of leader. People who get what the story of America is truly all about. And if we are still that shining city on a hill for all to see, it’s time for us to start acting like it. 

May God bless America and God bless our troops.

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Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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