We’ve all seen them. Those unbelievable images of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed jumbo jets into the World Trade Center buildings and our lives changed forever.

Photos of the gaping, flaming holes left by the hijacked planes. Images of desperate victims jumping from the burning buildings, of first responders and courageous civilians risking their lives, of the collapsing towers spewing forth a terrifying cloud of ash, of the jagged, smoldering devastation and death left behind.

Sixteen years later, the images still shock us and bring us back to the harsh reality and the incredible heroism of that day.

Today, we once again bear witness to mass devastation in another iconic U.S. city — Houston. As in 9/11, first responders and volunteer civilians are risking life and limb to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey and mass flooding from the most recorded rainfall in continental U.S. history.

There are images of schools, churches, highways, homes and cemeteries under muddied waters. Of drenched, exhausted victims fleeing their submerged homes, carrying shoeless children and trembling dogs on their shoulders. Of at-capacity shelters, of downed electrical lines, of rain continuing to fall.

But something is different. After 9/11, our entire country banded together to mourn the loss, hail the heroes and recognize America as one great nation of people. However, the Houston flood news coverage is interrupted with reports on continuing racial and political tensions.

Perhaps the fact that 9/11’s devastation was caused by a foreign enemy allowed Americans to link arms as allies. As for Houston, we have only Mother Nature to blame. Strangely, the lack of someone to accuse has made us turn on each other.

Rather than allowing our hearts and minds to open wide and fully absorb another historic moment when Americans rose to an unthinkable challenge, we are still bickering over politics.

This squabbling robs thousands of first responders, law enforcement, mobilized military aboard warships and aircraft, and National Guard members the recognition they deserve for their undaunted service. It diverts our attention from the countless acts of kindness and bravery shown by thousands of average civilians. It keeps us from thinking deeply about the suffering our fellow citizens continue to endure, and more importantly, how we might help from afar.

It even distracts us from those criminal opportunists who plot to loot and ransack as soon as the waters recede, allowing them to carry out their dirty deeds without the deterrent media coverage that might assist law enforcement officials.

Perhaps as 9/11 approaches, we can use the now-famous images of that historic tragedy to close the gap that prevents us from banding together to face the Hurricane Harvey flood devastation as one united people.

Some images of 9/11 are particularly relevant to the division we are experiencing today. The photos of people in the streets of New York City — office workers, firefighters, military men and women, hot dog vendors, tourists, nearly everyone — blanketed in gray ash are a symbolic reminder that we are all Americans. In those photos, one cannot distinguish between black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative. All one sees is people helping or being helped in the midst of unthinkable tragedy.

This year, on the 16th anniversary of 9/11, as Houston begins the long process of recovery, let’s set aside our differences for a later debate. Let’s color ourselves as only Americans united as one. Let’s open our hearts so that we can fully experience the historic storm of grief and tragedy without distraction, and open our hands to offer our fellow citizens the charity and hope they so desperately need.

The following relief organizations are among those taking donations to assist the victims of Hurricane Harvey: American Red Cross (; Salvation Army (; Houston Flood Relief Fund (

Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at Email:

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