Updated: October 15, 2013 6:46AM
The object of remembering 9/11 is less a test of memory than of learning. What did we Americans find out about ourselves and our world from that infamous day? The evidence suggests that we may have missed an important message.
We were shocked to realize that we were not the fortress we imagined ourselves to be, that our national security was not to be taken for granted just because we were the world’s only superpower. Our overwhelming military might is not as protective as we thought against a furtive, shapeless enemy that does not value human life the way we do.
So we have gone to great lengths and adopted tough laws to try to ensure that a similar terrorist attack never again occurs on American soil.
We created a new cabinet agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and have spent billions of dollars during the past 12 years on intelligence gathering here and overseas, on military equipment and preparedness, on securing airports and protecting public and private buildings.
There has not been a foreign terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11, thanks in good part to such security measures, but also to some plain good luck. Remember the Christmas Day 2009 plane passenger whose plastic explosive in his underwear failed to detonate, saving a few hundred lives?
But the Boston Marathon tragedy was a potent reminder that, despite our vast security apparatus, we remain vulnerable to even amateurish plotters.
A more key question is whether 9/11 taught us that we must nurture openness, integrity and freedom because the world forces opposing us value the opposite. We like to think that we are a more united nation post-9/11, that we greater value our diversity, but is that really the case?
This is the lesson that we need to take more to heart from 9/11. We have struggled in this regard, but it is no final judgment. We still are a land of incalculable good intentions and personal strengths. The terrorists of 9/11 left us angry and distrustful. We still struggle to overcome that, to rediscover the joy and triumph of being American.