A new United States of America awoke on Wednesday morning, Sept. 12. It was a nation conceived in the chaos of fiery madness and forged in the furnace of countless fatalities.

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, America finally was forced to join the horror that has engulfed most of the rest of this planet for the past several decades.

We as Americans have entered into a Faustian commercial transaction we neither wanted nor could avoid.

In that exchange we were forced to trade our immunity from the madmen who, until Tuesday, afflicted every continent in the world, save ours, for a cold, cruel dose of reality.

We traded our false sense of security for the realization that thousands of lives can be snuffed out in an instant of insanity.

And these deals with the devil we always thought we were above, carry with them one other unimaginable terror — we find ourselves engaged in a life-and-death struggle with an enemy who not only has no fear of death, but gladly embraces it when it means he can take all of us with him.

There is no defense against such evil. And in our efforts to construct a strategy in this war that could well be the most disparate in our history, we must be very careful to avoid the pitfalls our enemy seeks to lead us into.

These words, part of a Telegraph Herald editorial written two decades ago, still resonate today. A whole generation has grown up knowing that terrorism on American soil is a very real possibility. We know, too, that not all enemies can be obliterated.

The events of 9/11 remain vivid in the minds of most Americans. It’s an analogy that’s been made countless times: For generations of Americans, 9/11 is their Pearl Harbor.

Not only for the shocking events seared into individual memories, but for other parallel circumstances. Like Pearl Harbor, authorities dismissed, downplayed or withheld facts that might have prevented or at least mitigated the scope of 9/11 carnage. After Pearl Harbor, Americans, especially those of Japanese descent, lost personal liberties. After 9/11, everyday Americans again lost some rights through the hastily approved but well-intentioned USA Patriot Act, which made it easier for government to spy on them.

Pearl Harbor created heroes, including the namesake of Dubuque’s Chaplain Schmitt Island, who helped a dozen sailors escape through a porthole to safety as the Oklahoma sank. He was one of 429 crew members who died in the attack.

Likewise, heroes emerged immediately on 9/11. The airline passengers who forced their plane to crash in Pennsylvania before it could hit its target and snuff out even more lives. The firefighters, law enforcement and other emergency personnel who not only rushed into burning buildings that day but suffered permanent damage physically and mentally due to their heroic efforts. The service men and women who, in the subsequent 20 years, served their country heroically — with thousands making the ultimate sacrifice.

Twenty years after Pearl Harbor, an era of patriotism began to give way to political upheaval and social unrest. In the years after 9/11, it took even less time for the spirit of unity to splinter.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 represents a somber occasion for reflection and assessment. What have we learned these 20 years? What have we yet to learn? Today, as Americans seem more intent on fighting each other than their common threat — global terrorists — it would be wise to reset their priorities. That, indeed, would be a vital goal before the 25th anniversary arrives.

Editorials reflect the consensus of the Telegraph Herald Editorial Board.

Recommended for you