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Column: We forgot our vow to never forget

I’m writing this late in the evening on Sept. 11, 2021, as I sift through the jumble of emotions evoked in the past 24 hours.

In 2001, our small New Jersey seaside community (where my wife Peggy and I spend part of each year) was savaged by the horrendous terrorist attack in nearby New York City. Today was a somber day of memorial services and tearful memories of neighbors, friends and family taken from us on an eerily similar, idyllic September day exactly 20 years ago.

It was as well a day of spontaneous patriotic reawakening – churchgoers singing Irving Berlin’s God Bless America!, strollers and bike riders in red, white and blue, U.S. flags flying everywhere. Suddenly we remembered the surge of national unity in the days and weeks following the 9/11 attacks – Americans bound together by our shared grief and resolve to work through our collective nightmare.

And the single phrase heard most often, in September 2001 and again yesterday? NEVER FORGET! But we did forget.

1. We forgot that there are people in this world who hate us and who will stop at nothing to harm us.

Our leadership has now decided that protracted military engagements – the so-called “forever wars” – are intolerable because of their high cost in blood and treasure. But remember that our initial intent was to take the war on terror to the terrorists’ backyards, not ours. It was a sound strategy in 2001, and it still is.

Our new, more timid strategy is stay out of harm’s way and keep dangerous foes at bay via remote, “over the horizon” technology. It’s a high-risk gamble on American security. And any illusion that withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would end our war on terrorism there evaporated instantly with last month’s suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, killing nearly 200 – including 13 American servicemen and women.

2. We’ve forgotten that our police, firefighters and first responders are our guardian angels.

On 9/11, while thousands were running away from the burning World Trade Center towers, police and firefighters were running into that inferno, on a perilous mission to save as many lives as possible – 412 did not return.

But since then, many have come to the view that American police officers are actually predators, driven by personal or systemic racism to abuse minorities. In last year’s racial justice riots, police and firefighters were routinely attacked by mobs of not-peaceful protesters. And now, shorthanded police forces are in the front lines fighting escalating crime in cities across America.

There’s no way to thank them enough for what they do. And yet, supposedly serious people propose “defunding” police? Sheer lunacy.

3. We’ve forgotten that we’re all in this together.

The enlightened narrative of 2021, embraced by many (and a view that some want to teach our children), is that what matters most in America is the color of one’s skin.

Nonsense. On 9/11, those trapped in the WTC twin towers died together, as did the passengers on UAL flight 93 and the Pentagon victims. No one knew or cared about the political or racial or ethnic differences among them.

The same is true about all of America – anything bad that befalls our country affects every one of us.

4. We’ve forgotten the importance of respecting our flag and our anthem and the nation they represent.

Surely, we all know that the U.S., however flawed, is by far the best place on Earth. Our great nation, and the people who’ve given their lives to keep it so, deserve undying respect.

Somehow, in the 20 years since 9/11, it’s become popular for advocates of any number of causes to demonstrate their dissatisfaction by disrespecting – or worse, desecrating – our flag. Their First Amendment right to do so is beside the point; their actions are a slap in the face to all who have served and the many who’ve died defending our country.

We have one national anthem, a good one – so let’s sing it together, like we mean it.

Twenty years after 9/11, we can still reboot. First, let’s keep our elected leaders’ feet to the fire in addressing the ever-present threat of terrorism. It’s not going away.

And let’s rekindle the spirit of American unity that swept over us twenty years ago. It’s OK to wear our patriotism on our sleeves. Yes, it may seem insufficiently sophisticated for our modern, woke world. No matter. Unabashed, visible love of country holds us together, and it reminds us to always cherish our priceless gift of U.S. citizenship. We can celebrate what’s right about America and keep working to fix what’s wrong with it.

And this time – never forget.

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