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Opinion: 9/11 was a day that shattered an age of innocence

America had won the Cold War and was the world’s only superpower, but suddenly it was vulnerable to a group of terrorists

An airplane approaches the south tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
United Airlines Flight 175 approaches the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, moments before a collision, seen from the Brooklyn borough of New York.
William Kratzke, Associated Press

Your columnists are proud to participate in this important Deseret News project remembering 9/11. We share our reflections, including the impact on Utah and national politics then and now.

What are your personal recollections of the day? Did other Utahns share such feelings and influence political deliberations?

Pignanelli: “These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of America’s resolve.” George W. Bush.

I was attending a breakfast event across the street from the White House that morning. After the second plane crashed, we were immediately evacuated onto Pennsylvania Avenue. I was confronted by thousands scrambling to secure transportation. Fear and panic was thick in the air. While walking the National Mall in the evening, there was a surreal scene of tanks and military equipment guarding the nation’s memorials, as if a coup had occurred.

America had won the Cold War and engineered the greatest technological advances in human history, but now the country was vulnerable to a handful of terrorists. Local leaders delivered rousing speeches and statements. Yet, their actions revealed the important element. Most politicians reflected Utah’s usual response to a crisis – work hard to solve the problem and insure no repeats. For example, Utahns doubled their commitment to guarantee the 2002 Olympics would be the safest and most efficient thereby demonstrating to the world what liberty and strength can purchase.

Furthermore, we comprehended our enemies were no longer just rogue countries, but also terroristic organizations. Officials and candidates were expected to promote measures that enhanced security and public safety. Shrewd politicians possessed a knowledge of global affairs.

As with America, our state was founded upon ideas, not geography or human-made structures. So we knew dark forces could not defeat us. But we needed to improve our economic security and strive for a society that benefits all. Perhaps a portion of Utah’s incredible success for two decades is an unconscious response to that portentous day.

Webb: Sept. 11, 2001, shattered an age of innocence. We had defeated communism. We were the world’s preeminent nation. No country could challenge us militarily or economically. We were secure in world leadership.

Then came the events of 9/11, changing much about America, leaving us feeling vulnerable in our own country and communities.

We mobilized for a prolonged engagement in a new kind of conflict, the permanent war on terrorism. Today an entire generation has grown up in the shadow of this struggle, including lengthy engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Along with millions of other Americans, I sat mesmerized, watching hours and days of nonstop television news on 9/11 and thereafter. Many of us witnessed on live television the shock and horror of large aircraft plunging into the Twin Towers. We also saw with tearful pride the heroism of first responders and the passengers on Flight 93, who crashed their airplane in a field in Pennsylvania, preventing a mass suicide attack in the nation’s capital.

For a period, we were united as Americans in patriotism and empathy. We supported our leadership. We didn’t care about politics or blame. Many young men and women volunteered for military duty.

The war on terrorism has been expensive, both in military lives lost in foreign countries and billions of dollars spent revamping our travel systems and hardening terrorism targets. History will judge whether our response was justified. But hindsight is always 20/20. We did what was best in the context of the moment. And we have prevented further mass terrorism attacks in America in the last two decades.

Did 9/11 provide opportunities in national and local politics that were utilized or ignored?

Pignanelli: The crisis could have launched efforts to maximize efficiency in government, while finding common ground among the political spectrum. Unfortunately, the petty partisans could not help themselves.

But in countless communities across the country the American resolve continued and flourished — especially in Utah. Religious and community organizations used commemorations to remind us why we should be grateful and never cease treasuring our principles. Utah kept the flame of 9/11 alive.

Webb: When America is attacked, we mobilize in unity, patriotism and purpose. But the unity doesn’t last very long. Today, America is plagued with more division, partisanship and alienation than any time in recent history. The recent chaotic and deadly exit from Afghanistan is an embarrassing and discordant bookend to the terrorism attacks on 9/11. With midterm elections looming, political conflict will only worsen at the national level.

It’s more important than ever for states like Utah to show how opposing sides with strong feelings can still work together to solve problems and achieve goals.

How should future generations of Utahns memorialize this day?

Pignanelli: Our descendants will remember this day as a wake-up call for constant vigilance toward the enemies of freedom. They should also recall with fondness how we responded to the challenge in our everyday lives. Hopefully, the commentaries will provide examples of our collective determination.

Webb: The brief period of unity of common purpose can be aspirational for those who came after 9/11. More likely, the individual stories of valor, selflessness and devotion to duty by first responders and others who sacrificed their lives on that day can serve as inspiration for many generations of Utahns and Americans.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.