Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
More than 3,000 flags near the Sandy City Hall Monday, honoring the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the Utah Healing Field continues a local tradition that began in 2002.

What if the way Americans seemed to change in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks had lasted?

That’s an interesting question to contemplate on this 17th anniversary of the tragic and horrific attacks perpetrated by terrorists on New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Today, on the cusp of midterm elections, the nation is politically divided. Enemies beyond its borders are, according to intelligence experts, seeking to exploit that division by influencing outcomes through social media.

Incivility and a propensity to believe and redistribute false information aids those enemies, even as it makes rational election decisions harder.

If you’re old enough, you may remember what those first few days after 9/11 were like. The nation felt a renewed sense of unity. People of all political stripes seemed to unite behind President George W. Bush as he committed to defeating terrorists while also drawing careful distinctions between them and sincere Muslim believers.

Americans were sobered. Not long after the attacks, Roger Rosenblatt wrote an essay for Time magazine in which he speculated 9/11 “could spell the end of the age of irony.”

That age, he said, was defined as one in which “the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes … declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life.”

If the aftermath of 9/11 taught anything, it was that Americans are strongest when they are united.

He said the attacks had made Americans once again confront reality, including notions about freedom, honor and fair play.

Opinion polls taken at about the same time found Americans suddenly becoming more religious and serious-minded.

How quickly those days passed.

The heroic firefighters who dashed into the face of danger when others were running away, and the men and women on Flight 93 whose heroism in storming their captors was enshrined by passenger Todd Beamer’s last words heard over a phone connection — “Let’s roll” — encapsulated the true meaning of heroism and patriotism.

The sacrifice of the passengers who crashed the plane in a wooded part of Pennsylvania was honored recently by the completion of a memorial tower at the crash site. Standing 93 feet tall, it includes 40 wind chimes, one for each victim.

It’s fair to ask, what would they think of today’s America, with its nasty memes and left/right echo chambers? What would the men and women who made anguished, heart-wrenching final phone calls to loved ones from within the burning, crumbling Twin Towers think of how quickly Americans resumed their ironic grins?

It’s appropriate today to reflect not only on the tragedies of 9/11, but on all the heroes through history who gave their lives so Americans today might enjoy unparalleled freedoms and prosperity.

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If the aftermath of 9/11 taught anything, it was that Americans are strongest when they are united.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have political differences. It does, however, mean the nation should understand its unique purpose in a world swirling with freedom’s enemies. It means people need to treat political foes as fellow Americans with competing ideas for helping the country, not as enemies. It means a return to civility and the Golden Rule in all aspects of life.

The country owes that much to its heroes.