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Return of ground zero flag after 15 years offers a chance to reflect on our values

It is fitting, on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and in the midst of the most contentious presidential election campaign in memory, that the flag raised at ground zero on that awful day has made its way back to lower Manhattan.

It was on that smoking, toxic rubble of the World Trade Center, only hours after the towers fell, that three firefighters raised the flag. It was then lost under what remain mysterious circumstances, but has now been recovered. On Thursday, it went on display at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Millions of Americans have been born since that day. To them, the attack is a story, more myth than reality, just as World War II once was for baby boomers. But for those who were alive and aware on that day, the terrible sights and feelings are seared into memory. They may be easier to restrain, a decade and a half later, but they remain, and the issues that produced them influence our daily lives.

It’s why fliers sometimes wait in exasperatingly long lines at airport security stations. It’s why Americans need passports or enhanced driver’s licenses to return home from Canada. It’s why political disputes arise over government surveillance programs. And it’s among the reasons why immigration has become so acrimonious an issue in this year’s presidential campaign.

The recovery of that flag not only allows its return to lower Manhattan, where it assuredly belongs, but offers an opportunity to consider again what it stands for, especially the inclusive values that made this immigrant nation the envy of the world. Because immigrants are taking a beating this year.

It’s not that Americans shouldn’t pay attention to who comes into the country. We paid a steep price for inattention when terrorists commandeered those four American jetliners, crashing one into the Pentagon, another into the Pennsylvania countryside and two others into the towers of the World Trade Center.

But to be American necessarily means to respect the role of immigration. It has helped to build the country, to maintain it and to defend it. We haven’t always been good at respecting their contribution. Immigrants have frequently been the target of hostility as they first arrived at Emma Lazarus’ golden door: the Irish, the Italians, the Jews and, especially, the nation’s forced immigrants, the African-Americans.

The threat of terrorism isn’t the only reason immigration burns as an issue this year. Illegal immigration across the country’s border with Mexico is a major contributor. But Republican nominee Donald Trump has proposed closing the border to Muslims, including refugees, because of the threat that became painfully, horrifically plain 15 years ago today and that has periodically resurfaced, mainly through the actions of al-Qaida and ISIS and some sociopathic admirers who have unleashed savage attacks in this country and elsewhere.

It’s certainly not unnatural to examine those kinds of issues in light of the determination of some to murder Americans by the thousand. But that examination can’t happen in a vacuum, especially one purposely created by the terrorists against whom we seek to protect ourselves. Somewhere in that calculation, there must be room to consider who we are, what we hold ourselves out to be and what other actions we can take to prevent attacks.

That is at least some of what the rediscovered flag represents on this sorrowful day. We continue to grapple with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks that killed 3,000 people, including those who perished in Shanksville, Pa., fighting their abductors. It’s our obligation to do so in a way that is thoughtful and that keeps in mind what we think it means to be American.

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