Where were you when life as we knew it ended, when evil fell like a dark shroud over America?

Where were you when ruthless men used airplanes to show the world how much they hated us?

You were probably already at work or in school when the routine morning of Sept. 11, 2001, quickly morphed into a nightmare, shattered by the televised news that the United States was under attack in a new way.

You may have been a child or teenager. You may not even have yet been born.

Anyone old enough to remember the events of that day will surely never forget what they saw and how they felt — the uncertainty, fear, disbelief and anger.

Our nation had been targeted before, but never like this: Hijacked jetliners laden with fuel and dozens of civilians turned into winged weapons of mass destruction. No soldiers on a field of battle, but rather a volunteer death squad of terrorists knowing they would not live to see another day.

Conditioned and convinced, the religious zealots who loathed us learned first how to pilot the planes and then, according to plan, used brute force and hidden blades to commandeer them in midair. Three of the suicide mission pilots found their intended targets, while the fourth crashed to the ground when passengers decided they wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Twenty years have come and gone since that hostility was manifested in thousands of deaths, the destruction of New York’s famous Twin Towers and heavy damage to the Pentagon, the heart of the U.S. Department of Defense. Along with the innocent people who lost their lives, our nation lost a large measure of its sense of safety with the realization of the lengths our enemies were willing to go to inflict harm.

9/11 changed everything, from air travel to our understanding of how the West is viewed by people in other countries and from other cultures.

Anniversary retrospectives and special coverage abound, but real-time 9/11 news footage remains seared into our retinas and brains, from the impact and explosion of the second jet plowing into the World Trade Center to the fire-ravaged, smoking skyscrapers collapsing one after the other in massive clouds of dust and debris.

Where were you then and where are you now, mentally? Two decades of our war on terror have concluded in Afghanistan, but we must remain ready and willing to fight when provoked. Layers of security and surveillance were added after 9/11, but our opportunistic enemies will bide their time, looking for chances to strike.

We plaster feel-good “Coexist” bumper stickers on our vehicles, while “Death to America” chants ring out around the globe. We must remain strong, vigilant and united to ensure our way of life survives.

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