Earlier this year, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) called on supporters to “push back” against anyone associated with President Donald Trump. If you see these people in a public place — a restaurant, department store or gas station, she said, “You tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” 

High-profile harassments of Trump operatives followed. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckeby Sanders was assigned a Secret Service detail.

In the months that followed, the president stepped up his attacks on the news media, referring to them as “enemies of the people.” 

Last week, a man was arrested in an FBI investigation after making death threats against employees of the Boston Globe, repeating Trump’s claim that journalists are “enemies of the people.” 

It’s hard to look at the hatred and the increasing violence that we’re purveying and not get the sense that America is embroiled in a new civil war. It’s not as neatly defined as “the” Civil War, of course, but modern warfare rarely is. This war started as one of rhetoric, but is escalating without an end in sight. 

Seventeen years ago, that wasn’t the case.

Seventeen years ago, if only for a moment, the United States of America were truly united.

When Muslim extremists who were bending their religion to justify their twisted views towards humanity orchestrated the most thoroughly-planned and expertly-delivered terrorist attack the world had ever seen, they did more than fundamentally change America. They reminded us of things we were on the verge of forgetting — compassion, concern towards the plight of our fellow man. Country before politics.

Perhaps most of all, those terrorists reminded us of the virtues espoused by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 

As America pauses to remember those 9/11 terrorist attacks next week — in 2018, as in 2001, September 11 falls on a Tuesday — it almost seems impossible to believe it has been so long. The babies that mothers clutched a little more tightly as news of the terrorist attacks broke are preparing to graduate high school now. High schoolers who were preparing to graduate then are running Fortune 500 companies now. 

Mostly, though, it’s hard to believe it’s been so long because we’re a different society than we were then. And not for the better.

It’s not that we didn’t have our political differences before 9/11. The country had just gone through a bitter presidential impeachment process, followed by the U.S. Supreme Court deciding the 2000 presidential election. Many of the same hot-button political issues of the day — gun control, abortion, environmental policy — are still being debated today.

But on that brilliant Tuesday morning — the passage of time will never erase the memory of just how beautiful that day was, without a cloud in the sky — we ceased to be Democrats and Republicans. We stopped allowing ourselves to be defined by our conservative or our liberal leanings, by the color of our skin, or by our religious beliefs. We were simply Americans. And it didn’t matter that the people of Manhattan spoke with funny accents and lived a lifestyle that many of us in East Tennessee would never know. On that day, we were all New Yorkers. 

Congress stopped bickering long enough to stand on the front steps of the Capitol Building and sing God Bless America — the Democrats alongside the Republicans. And when President George W. Bush addressed Congress and the nation a few days later, there was no cheering from the right side while the left side sat silently and scowled. He had the support of all of Congress — those who enthusiastically supported his domestic policies and those who vehemently opposed them.

Americans of every walk of life headed to their local retail store and purchased American flags to fly on flag poles that had long stood bare. There were impromptu candlelight vigils on courthouse lawns, and nobody cared if the person standing beside them voted for or against the president. American flags flew from car windows like school colors in a college town on a football Saturday.

The terrorists had meant to bring America to her knees. Instead, they made her stand tall. Throughout history, American patriots have sacrificed their lives for the cause of liberty, making the U.S. stronger through their bloodshed. Traditionally, these patriots have been cloaked in uniform, armed with weaponry and months of training. On the morning of September 11, they were in business suits and casual wear, aboard four airliners or inside the Twin Towers. They had no weaponry aside from their courage — as displayed aboard American Airlines Flight 93 — and they had no training. But the deaths of the 2,996 men, women and children nevertheless made America stronger — for a moment.

It was a moment that would not last, a moment that perhaps could not last. And we’ve slowly descended into the madness in which we find ourselves currently mired. President Obama governed as the most divisive president of my lifetime, only to be surpassed in terms of divisiveness by President Trump. And now we’re killing each other not only in the name of race or religion, but in the name of politics. Neither side appears to be interested in the reconciliation that has resolved American conflicts of bygone eras. And so the spirit of 9/11 becomes little more than a distant memory.

If the same science that can create artificial hearts and bionic kidneys was capable, we could’ve bottled the spirit that was unleashed on that Tuesday morning so that it wasn’t lost forever.

We couldn’t, we didn’t, and it was.