Twenty years later, could the United States withstand another 9/11? asks Robert Gehrke

After the immediate unity faded, the acid of division after 9/11 has weakened the foundation that has historically kept our nation stable.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People fill the room as the Salt Lake County Council voted down Dr. Angela Dunn's mask ordinance for K-6 students, on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Would today's division keep the country from uniting if another challenge like 9-11 came upon us?

About a trillion words will be written this week commemorating the Sept. 11 attack on the United States.

Where were you? What is the legacy? What should we take away from the past two decades?

I remember where I was. I was working in Washington, on the last train that passed under the Pentagon before lines were shut down, heading to a hearing at the Capitol on Salt Lake City Winter Olympic security. We lived close enough to the Pentagon you could smell smoke from the fire.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It was an awful, surreal day — and far, far worse for thousands of others who lost their lives, tens of thousands who lost friends and loved ones, and scores of thousands of servicemen and women who fought in the ensuing wars.

Nothing I say can, as Abraham Lincoln said, “hallow this ground” or provide some novel insight or context.

But as the anniversary approached, I kept coming back to the same question: Twenty years out, would we as Americans be resilient enough to endure that sort of devastation should, God forbid, anything on that scale happen again?

Or are the ties that bind our country so strained and frayed — in part of what came in the aftermath of 9/11 — that we’d simply be torn apart?

Think back to the week of Sept. 12. The country was still in shock, but people rallied to support each other in every way possible — blood drives, fundraisers, supply drives, prayer meetings. Whatever could be done, it was done.

Would we get that today? The division and politicization around the pandemic, where people are just as likely to come to blows over being asked to not infect their friends and neighbors, makes me think it’s not likely — or if we do bring people together it would only last until politics creep in.

I blame a large portion of that on the corrosive spread of lies and misinformation — especially the rising role of social media. After the towers fell there were “Truthers” like Alex Jones who believed it was an inside job, that the towers were demolished, that a cruise missile and not a plane hit the Pentagon.

They were dismissed as a fringe at the time, but Jones and his ilk burrowed into the system. Today he is a raspy leading (or misleading) voice in the Republican Party. The conspiracy cancer has metastasized.

School massacres are branded “false flag” operations with crisis actors, Democrats and celebrities run child sex trafficking rings in pizza parlors, there is no pandemic, vaccines implant trackers in your system, and the election was stolen.

In a nation awash with QAnon conspiracies, you could imagine the nonsense that would spread — some of it likely planted by hostile actors — in the aftermath of another large-scale national catastrophe.

Truth doesn’t matter anymore. We don’t even seem to want to seek it out.

After Sept. 11, Congress came together to form an independent commission to thoroughly and authoritatively lay out the narrative of the attacks and identify the failures that allowed it to happen. After the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, the pursuit of answers took a back seat to partisan devotion — not that anything revealed by an independent commission would have changed anyone’s perception of what unfolded.

I don’t want to overstate the point. Things on Sept. 10, 2001 weren’t exactly rainbows and puppy dogs. We’d just endured the brutal Bush v. Gore election. The Senate was then, as now, evenly split and bitterly divided.

And the steely resolve after 9/11 yielded some terrible results — a war in Iraq fought on fake pretenses, a protracted and fruitless war in Afghanistan, indefinite detentions in Guantanamo Bay, torture of captives, erosion of civil liberties and anti-Islamic sentiment.

Indeed, after the feelings of brotherhood and unity faded, the seeds of division began to grow, eroding the foundation that kept the country stable in that tragic time. We are pitted against each other — by those who benefit from the division — more than any time in the last 50 years, and we are on a path that seems unsustainable.

We can hope and pray and be vigilant that we won’t have another catastrophe on the scale of 9/11. But we can also be sure that we will be tested by incidents instigated by foreign foes, domestic madmen or natural disasters.

So perhaps we can use this anniversary and the coming months — as Lincoln also put it — “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle,” to solidifying the core of our national spirit and committing to recapture some of that brotherhood and sisterhood borne out of the shared trauma of 9/11.

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