THE plumes of pungent black smoke billowed into the morning azure sky as sirens reverberated and jet fighters circled above. I found myself assembled with strangers not far from the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, part of a congregation of humans bound together by our common disbelief, distress, and search for answers. While physically close to what had happened, ironically, we understood fewer details than those who watched the tragic events on television from afar.

What we did know is that a hijacked aircraft had been deliberately crashed into the nerve centre of America’s armed forces right after two planes hit the New York City World Trade Center towers, and that another plane had crashed into a Pennsylvania field.

Twenty years later, I stand at the Pentagon National 9/11 Memorial which is now two acres of hallowed territory commissioned for peace and remembrance. Both serene and sombre, the public memorial is located at the crash site, and consists of Crape Myrtle trees and 184 memorial benches to remember the dead, their families, and all those who sacrificed and experienced loss that day.

Directly behind the reconstructed façade of the Pentagon is the Pentagon Memorial Chapel. This small but sacred and solemn room is located at the crash point of where the aircraft’s tip initially struck the building. Dignitaries and visitors from around the country and world have visited this room of reflection and meditation. Whether we are sitting in the pews of this chapel with light streaming through the stained glass or find ourselves thousands of miles away, the 20th Anniversary of September 11 stirs reflection within the hearts of many both for the day and the path since travelled.

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Discussion, perspective, and debate about what led to 9/11 and the how the US and western world responded to the attacks are varied and diverse. We rightfully pause on 9/11 to remember the innocents and first responders lost, and the families and survivors affected. We must also see how an autumn day ushered in a new season of global affairs that brought forward multiple winters of loss and sacrifice. On each calendar day over the last 20 years, new heroes have rendered service, persons who deserve our respect and support as a result of their willingness to aid others.

According to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the number of United States troops who have died fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan passed 7,000 at the end of 2019. Many more have been injured, suffer mental health or PTSD challenges. The UK and other countries have also suffered losses, and we must not forget the thousands of contractors, diplomats, journalists, and aid workers who have been killed or endure trauma.

Brown University further reports in a Costs of War project that the cost of global war on terror is a staggering $8 trillion with an estimated loss of 900,000 deaths around the world. Further, nearly 40 million individuals living in war zones have been displaced by war since 9/11. Countless human souls have been scared by this era, burdened by a weight initially brought upon the world by zealous hate.

We must also recognize that during the last 20 years, the world has taken steps in advancing wider gender participation, improving health care, expanding the social and economic infrastructure, advancing basic education especially for impoverished girls, addressing climate change, widening higher education access, modernising agriculture, extending technology, and providing safe havens for refugees.

Such progress must not be left to wither, but be further nourished. In fact, a pillar of US and international engagement should be fighting extreme global poverty in all its manifestations. New governments that do not adhere to upholding standards of human decency and empowerment must be held to account by the donor community.

The world is a complex place, full of perverse characters who actively fuel the flames of division by sparking hate, and celebrating conflict. However, far greater in number than the cast of destructive characters in our midst are those who believe in peace, the importance of unity, and promoting human dignity.

On this 9/11 anniversary, we can pay tribute to those lost by spending today and the remainder of our days as persons of goodwill. And if we are at a crossroads in figuring out how to make the world a better place, we may turn to that which is within our grasp. We can embrace those closest to us with hugs and encouraging words. Doing so is a genuine tribute to those who departed their homes and families on that September 11 morning not knowing that it would be a final farewell.

Ian Houston has spent his career in Washington, DC as an advocate for diplomacy, trade, global poverty alleviation, intercultural dialogue. He is President of the Scottish Business Network (SBN) in the US and SBN Ambassador in Washington, DC and regularly writes for The Herald. He serves on the board of the Robert Burns Ellisland Museum and Farm in Auldgirth and is the author of “Under Candle Bright.” His views do not necessarily reflect the views of SBN or Ellisland.