A lot has changed in the last 20 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Like every American, I can look at the changes in my own life: I was then an 8th grade student. Now I’m a mother of three kids of my own. And I can look more broadly at our country: Innovations have changed our lives for the better, but our society and our government have faced new challenges as well. Even the last 20 months demonstrate a dynamic time of challenge and change as our country, and our world, have been ravaged by a pandemic and political division.

Personally, I’ve been wondering what I can do to commemorate the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. The loss of life — and the loss of innocence — of that day changed the trajectory of many lives, of the war on terror, and of our collective American experience. 

One lost life in particular — that of Barbara Olson — is of special significance to us at Independent Women’s Forum. Barbara was an IWF founder. As R. Gaull Silberman (another IWF founder) said, “Barbara was the embodiment of why we started IWF: to give voice to independent, articulate, knowledgeable women who were secure in their femininity and who had the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and bring common sense to bear on issues of importance to women and to men. We sought to change the terms of the debate, and nobody was better at it than Barbara.” 

Barbara was just 45 years old. Her life — filled with work as a lawyer, as an official in the Reagan Justice department and author, and as political commentator and policy advocate — was far too short. 

But even amidst the loss of the 9-11 terror attacks, there were moments of great courage, as first responders, firemen, police, and other volunteers came together to save lives, clear away rubble, and rebuild. And there were moments of unity and patriotism: Americans came together in the days following September 11, 2001 in a way we never had before — at least not in my lifetime — or since. 

We can long for unity as a nation. We can talk sadly and nostalgically about the past, the time before September 11 when we didn’t have to take off our shoes in the airport. We can similarly pine for a time before facemasks, vaccine mandates, and social distancing. But we cannot turn back time. All we can do is look forward, and look inward. 

Ultimately, I think the best way to honor brave Americans like Barbara Olson who died on September 11 is to look in the mirror and do what we can to continue to build the kind of country, society and government that would make them proud. We can disagree with one another, but we can do so without attacking one another. We can be political opponents without being enemies. 

Twenty years have passed since 9-11, and a lot has changed. But we will never forget.