15 years after 9/11, lost unity: Our view

President Barack Obama says the nation will never forget the lives of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama said at a Pentagon memorial service that he is inspired by the resilience of the victims' families. (Sept. 11) AP

On a cloudless day 15 years ago when the New York skyline, the Pentagon and America’s singular sense of security were all shattered, the tragedy inspired even bitter partisans to reach for unity. And to find it. Republican and Democratic members of Congress abandoned their divisions on Sept. 11, 2001, and stood side by side on the steps of the Capitol to sing God Bless America.

As both parties declared a legislative truce, that spirit permeated the nation. Flags waved in neighborhoods across the country. Citizens joined to donate blood, give to charity and honor the fallen. President George W. Bush made it a point to attend services at a mosque, and even in that moment of fury, there were blessedly few attacks on blameless American Muslims. Democrats joined Republicans to boost the president's approval rating to 90%. And after America launched military strikes in Afghanistan that October to root out al-Qaeda, 80% of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, were solidly behind the move.

The mood of cooperation persisted and produced change. For better or worse during the next months, Congress created a new Cabinet agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to better protect the nation. Lawmakers professionalized the rag-tag minimum-wage job of airport security, and moved to tear down walls between competing intelligence agencies. At times, lawmakers went too far, sacrificing individual liberty for a sense of security in sections of  the USA Patriot Act, but at least they worked together in what they viewed as the nation's best interests.

A bipartisan 9/11 Commission approved by Congress meticulously investigated the terrorists attacks, unearthed failures and recommended changes across the government, many of which Congress followed.

While the decision in 2002 to authorize Bush to go into Iraq was also heavily bipartisan, unity began to fray not long after the war started in March 2003. Baghdad fell quickly, but the war turned into a bloody insurgency. Casualties mounted. U.S. forces found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, undermining the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war. Some lawmakers and voters felt duped by a dangerous game of bait-and-switch on an epic scale. The partisan gap grew, and as the nation turned back to more mundane but contentious domestic issues, differences widened into chasms. And the sense of unity dissipated.

Flash forward to Sunday's 15th anniversary of 9/11, and the nation is divided as seldom before.

Lawmakers from both parties gathered on the Capitol steps Friday to commemorate the occasion, but Congress cannot even agree on funding a fight to vanquish Zika, a disease that can devastate the lives of infants and their families. Complex issues — immigration, tax policy, health care, the national debt and more — are left to fester. Terrorist attacks, such as the one in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, are treated as opportunities for partisan witch hunts and blame-shifting rather than sober fact-finding.

Perhaps the most egregious example of gridlock is the failure to tighten loose gun laws that make it easier for deranged people and self-radicalized terrorists to carry out their murderous rampages. After the massacre in Orlando in June, which left 49 people dead and 53 wounded, 56 cowardly senators —  53 Republicans and three Democrats —  rejected the opportunity to close a yawning gap in gun background checks, a strategy supported by nearly 90% of Americans.

This sort of partisanship is what political scientist Norman Ornstein calls “tribal.” The other side is no longer viewed as a worthy adversary but as the enemy: If you are for it, I am against it.

This corrosive division is playing out in the presidential campaign. Sizable shares of Democrats and Republicans not only disagree with the other party, they also fear it. About 55% of Democrats said the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while nearly half of Republicans said the same of Democrats, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Unity has been replaced by fear, not only of enemies outside the country but also of neighbors, of lawmakers and of those who seek to lead the country.

Nonetheless, there is one memory that brings Americans together. More than nine in 10 adults, even some who were youngsters on 9/11, remember exactly where they were when they heard about the attacks. If only they could also remember, in the absence of massive tragedy, how to rekindle the spirit of unity 9/11 evoked.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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