9/11 is more than just a day to remember all of the victims of that awful day

What’s changed in America in the 20 years since Sept. 11, 2001? Have we really grown as a nation since the terrorist attacks? And what do we need to do so we can?

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Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center and flames and debris explode from the second tower on Sept. 11, 2001.

Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center and flames and debris explode from the second tower on Sept. 11, 2001.

Chao Soi Cheong / AP file

I remember my 20th birthday as if it were yesterday.

A mother-too-soon, I was struggling to find my way out of a disastrous marriage and into a life that would allow me to raise my family in a neighborhood very different from the public housing where I grew up.

It took another 20 years of personal growth for me to fully realize that goal.

In this final stretch, I have come to understand that change is what keeps us moving forward.

As the nation observes the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, I can’t help but reflect on what has changed in America.

Have we really grown as a nation since the terrorist attack that killed 2,977 people and injured more than 6,000 others?

As many of us relive that horrific loss, the nation is still bitterly divided — this time over vaccination and mask mandates to fight COVID-19, a virus that has killed an estimated 650,000 Americans since it surfaced in January 2020.

I look back at the years since 9/11, and I am struck by how little has changed.

In 2001, I pointed out that the “staggering loss of life in the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon shocked Americans into a sustained period of grief. Yet every day, in every city, a family grieves the loss of a loved one due to gun violence.”

A little more than a decade later, after a mass shooting attack that killed 10 people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., former President Barack Obama challenged the news media to compare the number of Americans who have been killed by gun violence with the number of Americans killed in terrorists attacks.

NBC News took on the challenge, reporting that an estimated 153,144 people were shot to death between 2001 and 2013, while the Global Terrorism Database estimates that 3,046 people in the United States died in terrorist or possible terrorist attacks between 2001 and 2014, the bulk of them in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer,” Obama once said. “When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seat-belt laws because we know it saves lives.

“The notion that gun violence is somehow different — that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon…it doesn’t make any sense.”

In 2003, I wrote: “We do not join together to mourn these deaths. But to the families left behind, the grief is no less painful than that suffered by our nation over the senseless slaughter of America’s innocents.”

Today, we do not remember the blatant hatred that was displayed against Arab Americans in the aftermath of an attack that stole so many lives.

Outraged protesters marched against a mosque in Villa Park and on an Arab American neighborhood in the Chicago area. Immigrants who looked like they might have come from the Middle East were verbally and physically assaulted.

That same hatred reared up in 2020 when former President Donald Trump and his supporters insisted on referring to the COVID pandemic as the “Chinese virus,” sparking an outbreak of xenophobia.

According to the group Stop AAPI Hate, 9,081 hate incidents were reported from March 19, 2020, to June 30, 2021.

“The number of hate incidents reported to our center increased from 6,603 to 9,081 from April to June 2021,” according to the organization’s national report.

People of Chinese ethnicity reported the most hate incidents of all ethnic groups, followed by Koreans, Filipinos, Japanese and Vietnamese.

The rise in hate incidents targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is reminiscent of what happened to Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Most of us won’t remember any of this on this 20-year anniversary of Sept. 11.

But we need to.

It’s the only way to change.

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