Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most shocking days in U.S. history, the hijacking of four jetliners by 19 terrorists with the intent of crashing them into iconic American landmarks.

Two of the planes brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York City. A third plane hit the Pentagon in Northern Virginia.

The fourth plane, which apparently had targeted the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was thwarted by a heroic passenger revolt that caused it to crash in a field in Shanksville, Pa.

All told, almost 3,000 people were killed in the attacks.

We must never forget the loss of lives that day and the heroism of those who risked their lives responding to the terrorism.

At the same time, we must learn the lessons of 9/11 as we continue to struggle with how to combat the threat of terrorism and faceless enemies who would do us harm.

For those too young to remember 9/11, it’s challenging to convey the degree to which Americans were shaken to the core.

Shortly after the attack, President George W. Bush spoke to the nation and set forth a course of action that was passed on to three of his successors.

“The attack took place on American soil, but it was an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world,” Bush said. “And the world has come together to fight a new and different war, the first, and we hope the only one, of the 21st century.

A war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.”

Bush’s call to arms resulted in the highest approval ratings — 90 percent — of any president in the six decades that Gallup had tracked presidential performance.

Twenty years later, we are seemingly less vulnerable to terrorist attacks than we were in 2001. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, is dead, as are many of the al-Qaida leaders.

Yet the threat of a major cyberattack is increasing, day by day. And if weakening the United States was bin Laden’s ultimate goal, we have spent an estimated $5.8 trillion on the war in Afghanistan and other conflicts stemming from the attacks with very little to show for it.

That’s a staggering number, the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars a day that could have been spent on a multitude of needs.

It’s a grim reminder that wars rarely go the way presidents — or military leaders — think they will.

So, yes, let’s use 9/11 to engage in thoughtful discussion about our ability to evaluate the pros and cons of going to war and how we can best find the right balance between domestic and national security spending as we stave off the ever-present threats to national security.

But first let’s commemorate 9/11 by first remembering the nearly 3,000 who died that day and the heroic efforts of those who risked their lives to save others.

The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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