Outside Baltimore’s World Trade Center, three, 22-foot-long, twisted steel beams from the New York World Trade Center sit on a marble platform inscribed with the names of the 68 Marylanders who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. Nearby, three blocks of limestone from a Pentagon wall and three blocks of granite, memorializing the heroic efforts of the passengers on Flight 93, sit atop their own marble platforms. All are silent, but powerful reminders of that horrible day we will never forget.
It is entirely fitting that they grace such a prominent public space at the heart of this city, even now, 20 years after the terrorist attack and its aftermath. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on 9/11; many more have in the war on terror it launched since. Map the three locations where the four planes hit — Shanksville, Pennsylvania; Arlington, Virginia; and New York City — and Baltimore is squarely within the triangular target. Whatever trauma Americans suffered watching this act of terrorism unfold, it was felt keenly in the Old Line State.
And so we remember.
Yet memories are not always reliable. It is relatively easy to conjure the most horrifying images of that day: the crash of a Boeing 767 into the World Trade Center’s south tower on network television; the desperate tower occupants leaping from windows to escape the flames; the collapse of both buildings that left New Yorkers scattering in fear from the avalanche of debris. But it is perhaps too easy to forget the heroics of the first-responders who ran so fearlessly into the towers or the groundswell of public support that was soon to follow.
Heroes. A title so often overused seemed suddenly inadequate to describe those police and firefighters and certainly the passengers who rushed the hijackers of Flight 93, bringing the plane down before it reached its destination, likely the U.S. Capitol or the White House. In the days that followed, Americans took solace in national unity.
But that memory is misleading, too. The act of terrorism still terrorized, and even as we pulled together, our leaders and citizens also excluded. From those who embraced a mindless anti-Muslim view domestically, which then-President George W. Bush specifically condemned, to the poor foreign policy choices, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, too many of us seemed unable or unwilling to see the differences among Sunni and Shia, al-Qaida and mainstream Islam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Our leaders spoke of terrorists as if they were a single, united threat. But the world was more complicated than simply hunting down Osama bin Laden (as rewarding as his 2011 death may have been). And so, the last 20 years of U.S. occupation in Afghanistan yielded little more than the messy withdrawal of recent weeks and a lot of recrimination, much of it simplistic and distorted.
Make no mistake, the U.S. still faces a serious terrorist threat whether at the hands of evildoers foreign or domestic. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a wake-up call regarding the woeful state of political discourse in this country and our easy embrace of violence. What about the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting? The 2017 Las Vegas sniper? The 2019 Walmart shooting in El Paso? Passengers are screened for guns and explosives at airports but not for in-flight temper tantrums when they refuse to wear a mask or otherwise act up. Throw in the virulent streak of racism, misinformation, conspiracy theories and demagoguery that Donald Trump has so proudly popularized and one can only wonder: Did Americans learn anything from 9/11? From the mistakes that followed?
And so we must view the date warily. Here’s to the heroes of Sept. 11 and to the debt that cannot be repaid. But let us also remember the flip side of that day. Irrational fear, anger and hatred are not our allies; they are among our most dangerous foes. May we remain vigilant against them.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.