The 9/11 Memorial in New York City
"If we learn nothing else from this tragedy,
we learn that life is short
and there is no time for hate."
--Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl
Copyright © 2019
by Ralph F. Couey
It's hard to believe, isn't it? Eighteen years have passed since the day that changed the world and defined the generation who lived that day. Children born that year are out of high school and either on to college or starting that long, hard road we call adulthood. But when that amount of time passes, even an event so life-altering as 9/11, memories begin to fade. We don't forget, mind you, but the years have taken the edge off those recollections.
Every year, I ask myself how many people will have to be reminded when the anniversary day arrives. Certainly, there are those whose personal or political agenda is perfectly at home with forgetting altogether. But all you have to see is what happens in New York City when an airliner or other large jet makes a low pass over Manhattan. In a word, people freak. In the Big Apple at least, 9/11 is still an open wound.
So many things changed, not the least was the feeling that because we were Americans, that nothing bad would happen to us. Sure, we saw television news accounts of terrible terror attacks in far-off places such as Israel, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, and the Middle East. We took comfort in the idea that we weren't a primary target, and that the mighty shield of law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the military would protect us. That proved to be a delusion. Since then, there have been attacks on our soil, but almost all by unaffiliated lone wolves, the psychopathically homicidal. The terror groups are still out there, and they're certainly making efforts to hit us, but haven't succeeded. Instead, the fear of Jihadist terror attacks has been largely replaced by mass shootings. I am darkly amused by the statement always issued by law enforcement in the wake of these tragedies: "Not terrorism related." As if that somehow makes it better.
The fear is very real. Earlier this summer, in one of the TSA checkpoints at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, someone knocked over a heavy stantion, used to support those lines that define where people are supposed to go. The sound was loud and metallic, and in another time would likely have been completely ignored. But someone, who likely had never ever heard the sound of gunfire before, panicked and yelled, "Active shooter." A total panic was sparked, people sprinting towards the exits. Some were injured in the crush. Others took refuge under chairs, desks, and anything else that promised even illusory shelter. Officials got things back under control in remarkably short order, but now the thousands of passengers had to be lined up and re-screened, which took hours.
In October 2017, a professor at the University of Southern California had what was called "an episode" and told students there was an active shooter loose on campus. Panic followed a huge response by LAPD which determined that the report was false. In July of this year, another false report in downtown Chicago emptied a building on The Loop. In August, at a Walmart in Harker Heights, Texas, store security chased after a shoplifter who raced out the front doors and ran away. Seeing the running of the thief and store security, someone panicked and screamed "Active shooter!" The store emptied in minutes.
These incidents are a response to the increasing number of mass shootings now afflicting our country, all done by people with serious mental problems.
Hovering around, over, and within is the unrelenting atmosphere of hate that has bloomed in the United States. We can't just disagree anymore, we have to be hateful. Taking a step back, it's easy to see how easily pundits and politicians from both sides are able to manipulate us into a constant state of anger. None of us seem willing to think for ourselves, but rather just take what we are told at face value and run with that. The thing is, even a moment of critical thought and objective examination of the claims and the utter lack of supporting facts would reveal the lies. But we aren't willing to do that; it's just too much work. We'd rather let someone else do our thinking for us. Just because they're famous is all the criteria needed.
So this is where we find ourselves on the eve of the 18th year since 9/11. Much safer than ever from foreign terror attacks, we are now more vulnerable from each other. The boogeyman's identity has shifted from Middle Eastern to Middle American.
As time passes, and generations succeed each other, the painfully sharp memories held by those of us who were alive and aware on that day will pass along with us. Those who follow us will know 9/11 as history instead of memories. Makes sense, as they won't have any personal connection to the event. Unless we, of the 9/11 Generation impress upon them the magnitude of that tragedy, the meaning of what happened will be forever lost. It is how an tragedy eventually becomes a footnote.
But why should we remember?
Other than Pearl Harbor, this was the first time a foreign entity had attacked us on our own soil. The victims were not soldiers, but ordinary people just going to and being at work, guilty of nothing more than living their innocent lives. In the aftermath of the attacks, there were numerous acts of heroism recorded by those who escaped the towers, and likely dozens more that died with those heroes when the buildings collapsed. Then there was the courageous acts of resistance performed by the passengers and crew of Flight 93. We know now that performing acts of courage often is just a matter of an ordinary person finding themself in extraordinary situations, and choosing to act.
Our government, intelligence agencies, military, and law enforcement were caught completely off-guard. We learned later that not only did they not know about the attacks beforehand, nobody had even thought about the possibility. Those entities are now much more orientated towards the unexpected and being much more proactive. And We the People are much more aware of our surroundings. Having worked in the counter-terror field, I can say that there is enormous value in our willingness to speak up; to say something when we see something. As much as anything else, that increased attention by all our citizens has helped to prevent another such attack.
People died that day, many in the most horrific and violent ways possible. We know that soldiers die in battle. But these weren't soldiers. They were just like us. Their surviving friends and families still mourn; still feel pain. And we need to remember them.
We should remember the way we all healed our political wounds and for a precious, and unfortunately short time held hands and stood shoulder to shoulder, united in defiant love to the rest of the world Our fractious congress stood on the steps of the capitol and spontaneously sang "God Bless America" to us and the world. We still have the ability to stand together, to love one another. It shouldn't take a shared tragedy to do that.
Finally, in no other event in American history has the role of first responders, specifically police officers and firefighters, been so sharply brought into focus. We saw the kind of extraordinary courage it takes to do that job. For me, the image that encapsulates their sacrifice is this one:
This was taken in one of the towers by one of those who were evacuating. We see a young firefighter from Ladder 28 loaded down by all his equipment steadily climbing up the endless stairs. He is clearly fatigued, but he knows that once he reaches the floor where the fire is raging, his real job will begin. He and his brother firefighters are doomed. We know now that the jet fuel-fed fire contained by the exterior walls was burning at around 1,500 degrees fahrenheit. Structural steel loses 90% of its tensile strength at that temperature, and was no longer capable of holding up the building. But he isn't running away. He's continuing to climb to reach the fire. We don't know if he thought his actions useless. But for him and 342 of his brothers, there was only one thought, one goal. Fight the fire and save the civilians. Walk into danger when others are running away.
There was the horror and the violence. There was the sense of helpless fear. There was the anger and sense of violation at being attacked. The gut-punch of seeing one, and then two of the greatest buildings ever built collapse into dust. The unspeakable horror of seeing people falling from the building who had been forced out by the incredible heat and smoke, choosing the long and final fall rather than burning to death. But there was also the unity, the immediate willingness to help each other. The national sense that we were all in this together. And the spoken promise that we would always remember.
The scale of the commemorations has declined over the years, and the media's attention declines measurably every year. What was once live broadcasts now will be summarized in less than thirty seconds on the evening news. But we've changed. I think because of 9/11 we are for more willing to reach out to complete strangers and help each other in times of shared danger. I think the way we look at each other has changed, knowing that there may come a moment when we may be able to save their life, or they to save us. On that level, we are more involved with each other.
Most important of all, we are ever so much more sensitive to the fragility of life. Any one of us could be taken in death at any moment, without a shred of what anyone would call a good reason. So many others shared that perfunctory kiss before separating that morning, others perhaps a more fractious parting, all of whom not knowing that those moments would be their last moments. In all our relationships in this post-9/11 world we need to remember how quickly we can lose people, and how important it is to repair a fractured relationship while we have the time and opportunity to do so.
We need to love each other today. Because tomorrow may not be there.