OPINION: Still affected: Twenty years after attacks, we should seek old normalcy

Twenty years have passed since terrorists changed our world; arguably, that change has been for the worse.

Nearly 3,000 people died when terrorists hijacked two commercial airliners and flew them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. A third hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon and a fourth, presumably headed for the Capitol or the White House, crashed in a Pennsylvania field after heroic passengers stormed the cabin and challenged the hijackers.

More than 400 firefighters, police and other emergency workers died trying to rescue those inside the damaged buildings. An estimated 25,000 more people were injured.

Terrorism isn’t simply about killing people; it has a purpose — to send a message, instill fear and raise doubts among the targeted population about their leadership, about each other, and about themselves.

In that regard, the attack succeeded. Twenty years later, Americans still openly question the ability of law enforcement at all levels to protect us. Elected officials, even our presidents, have suffered lower approval ratings than their predecessors, and election campaigns have become increasingly contentious. Our state and national legislatures, once global examples of frank but civil debate, have devolved into partisan sniping with much less negotiation and compromise.

Our fears have cost us decades of advancement in the realm of human rights and economic freedoms. We voluntarily gave up many freedoms and now accept indignities that we wouldn’t have tolerated before the attacks. We take off articles of clothing on command and endure frisks and searches at airports; we now support international isolation, withdrawing from trade agreements and other global initiatives.

Most tragically, that fear has reversed decades of progress toward social equality for all demographic groups. Casualties on 9/11 included citizens of more than 90 countries. Indeed, the United States once took pride of its status as the world’s melting pot, where people from all lands could come and make life better for themselves, and for their new country. That acceptance, that freedom, built this country into the greatest, and strongest, on earth.

Twenty years later, we fear people from other countries. We seek to build walls along our borders, as if they would keep out the very people who make our country great.

Even domestically, new laws target certain ethnic groups and genders, limit voting and curtail our freedoms.

We can reverse the trend, however. We can choose to reengage in the global community. We can regain our respect for equality and justice; we can once again recognize that our country was built by the ideas, drive and efforts brought by people from all countries, not by those who sought to keep them, and their contributions, out of our country.

We will never forget the horror that occurred 20 years ago. It’s now time, however, to overcome our fears and rebuild the great country we once proved we can be. Only then can we overcome the shock of that terrorist attack. Only then can we declare victory over those who committed those atrocities.