One island of comfort in those first awful days nine years ago after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., was that we were a nation united. Indeed, we were a world united.
"Nous sommes tous Américains," "We are all Americans," proclaimed the French newspaper Le Monde. Americans living abroad reported an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity.
At home, the story was much the same. We were drawn together by shock, sorrow and a sense of the unique value this country has in a troubled world.
Drivers were more forgiving in traffic, people were more polite in the most routine transactions, families and friends sought out the simple solace of being together.
In the face of such horror, hatred and loss, we were sustained by our common humanity.
There were isolated hostile acts against Muslims and Arab-Americans in the early days after 9/11, but President George W. Bush made it clear, over and over, that Islam was not our enemy. "Americans understand we fight not a religion; ours is not a campaign against the Muslim faith. Ours is a campaign against evil," he said only weeks after the attacks.
In November of that year, Bush laid out clearly the values the United States represents and the terrorists attacked: "We value the right to speak our minds; for the terrorists, free expression can be grounds for execution. We respect people of all faiths and welcome the free practice of religion; our enemy wants to dictate how to think and how to worship even to their fellow Muslims."
Nine years later, we still value, and protect, the right of individuals to speak out and to practice religion as they choose.
Sadly, people either foolish or opportunistic or both are using those rights in venal attempts to attack the Islamic faith, to try to equate Muslims with terrorists and to attempt to divide a nation whose greatness is unity in diversity.
This nastiness — whether from the mouth of national political figures or an unknown pastor of a tiny congregation in Florida — does nothing to honor the thousands who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
Nor does it help the thousands more who risked life and health to help the victims, much less the thousands who have given their lives since in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We can't speak for the families and loved ones of 9/11 victims, but it is hard to imagine this stream of hate provides them any comfort.
And, of course, sympathy for our country throughout the world diminishes when our image slides from being a shining city on the hill to one of vile intolerance.
On this solemn anniversary, let us honor those who died on 9/11 not by exploiting our differences, but by reaffirming our unity.