For most Americans, whether in Manhattan or Kentucky or Timbuktu, the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 inspired the terror that was intended.
But they also gave rise to — or perhaps simply uncovered — a profound sense of unity.
We were one people attacked.
We were a special people, heirs to the most polyglot, messy and successful democracy in the history of the world.
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The good news on this 10th anniversary is that we are still that.
As the 2012 presidential campaign gears up, it's daily evident that anyone has the freedom to criticize the president, slam Congress or simply rail at the wind for all to hear or ignore.
That's a freedom that people in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Libya and elsewhere have died for this year.
National security measures since 9/11 have in some cases been excessive or just plain silly, but there's been no repeat of that terrible morning. Our security forces have kept us safe and our freedoms have been preserved.
It was a painful learning moment for our country. We'd built the richest, most powerful country on Earth from a rebellion against a world power. We'd been the victor in two world wars, survived a depression and our own civil war and titanic political and cultural battles over race and gender equity.
But we were vulnerable after all. Two airplanes could fly into our proud World Trade Towers and bring them down in the space of a morning, killing thousands. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon.
We learned that for all our military sophistication we could still lose brave soldiers to homemade bombs.
This is a day to remember and honor the people who gave their lives involuntarily on 9/11 and all those — first responders that day and soldiers since — who have gone into harm's way to protect us.
For those of us who didn't risk life or limb, though, the self-congratulation should be muted, at best. We didn't serve and we weren't asked to pay taxes to support the war. Far from it; taxes were lowered.
Our will to sacrifice and fight has been deeply damaged by two long, inconclusive and expensive wars.
The sense of unity was painfully fleeting.
President George W. Bush missed a leadership opportunity when he called on Americans to shop in the wake of 9/11 to shore up an economy reeling from the aftermath of the attacks.
No surprise, then, that 10 years later we are slogging through an economic recession with an alarming national debt.
The unproductive partisan bickering in Washington — where even setting a date for the president to speak to Congress brings on a chest-thumping schoolyard showdown — could be seen as a sign we're less unified than ever.
But that would presume that Congress is doing what we want, and clearly it is not.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last week showed 82 percent of those surveyed think Congress is doing a bad job, an all-time high in the history of that poll. President Barack Obama's approval rating has sunk to the lowest of his term, 44 percent.
We are unified in dissatisfaction with our leadership. It's not a good feeling but it's wonderful that we can express it.
One of the genuises of this country is the capacity for reinvention. We've changed, we've been attacked, we've survived. We owe thanks to those who have died to make that possible.