National security was largely an afterthought. The biggest question in most people's consciousness was how we would continue to spend the "peace dividend." We were the world's only remaining superpower, and we had no natural enemies.
Then, as most of us on the East Coast were preparing to begin our workday, one airplane - and then another - crashed into the World Trade Center. While we were attempting to grapple with and begin to understand the pictures on our televisions, a third plane circled the D.C. skyline and then aligned itself just above ground level and crashed into the Pentagon. Soon after, reports of a missing plane would turn into a fourth, taken down by those who first rose up against those who attacked us on that early September morning that is now firmly part of U.S. history.
The memories of those first hours are marked with confusion as much as they are the now understood shock and horror. We saw many of the pictures in real time, but it was hours if not days before we could really understand what happened to us. There are days now, some 11 years later, where we can wonder if we ever did, or we ever will.
Yet what was clear in the days that followed, as we grappled through confusion, grief, anger, and the cornucopia of emotions that poured from New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, was that we for a brief moment had come together as one country. We had a shared experience that brought us together as one more than any other event in my now 43 years.
It didn't last long. Our federal government is too large -- covering too many policy areas, with too many political spoils to divide - for us to remain united as one for too long. The policies adapted while united in the wake of 9/11 have paved the path to even more division.
We maintain an ongoing operation in Afghanistan with even those opposed saying "we support our troops." Yet even those who support the full mission have great difficulty articulating what victory would look like at this point. Those who don't support the mission are sticking to a face-saving withdrawal timeline. It remains unclear how anyone's measure of supporting our troops involves continuing to send them into harm's way with no clear mission other than to bide time until it is less embarrassing to admit the limits of America's power.
We have a responsibility to our soldiers, both those currently fighting and those who have returned home. Those currently on foreign soil need real support from back home. That means a president and Congress willing to continue to discuss what the specific mission requiring their involvement is to the citizens back home, and what benchmarks will determine victory.
Disappointingly, neither candidate for president appears to be ready to do this. President Obama is much more comfortable talking about killing Osama bin Laden and an orderly withdrawal than he is specifying what remains to be accomplished. Mitt Romney doesn't appear to be willing to address the issue with as high of a profile as it deserves either, virtually omitting the issue from his convention acceptance speech.
Four airplanes changed the course of U.S. history eleven years ago. It briefly changed the feelings of Americans, and launched new policies and entire federal agencies. While the emotions and unified feelings have long since subsided, the policies enacted have not.
While we remember those who lost their lives 11 years ago, let us not forget those who continue to leave their families and fight for us on foreign soil. And while we remember them, let us continue to ask those who lead us and those who may what our specific goals we expect them to accomplish are. Our troops are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for us. We owe them the same level of unity that originated this mission to ensure our leaders still believe and can justify the continuance of one.
If this is a question they can't or won't answer, then "supporting our troops" can only mean bringing them home.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.