Some of the victims.
Attribution not listed
Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey
*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat Sept. 10, 2016
*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat Sept. 10, 2016
For some, it seems a lifetime ago; for others, it was just yesterday.
History is marked by watershed events, a moment in time when the world was changed forever. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 were just such a moment. People describe two worlds, one before 9/11, the other post-9/11. Our lives, whatever they were the day before, have never been the same.
Terrorist attacks were nothing new. They had been active for decades, filling the evening newcasts with video of violent death and destruction. But those attacks had always occurred elsewhere. Belfast, Beirut, Bogota, and other places, always far away. But never here; never on our soil.
We had been lulled into a false sense of security, content to live out our lives, safe behind the barriers of our two oceans.
Historian Roberta Wohlstetter in her book "Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision" described the paralyzing malaise of thought and delusion present before December 7th as "...an unwarranted feeling of immunity from attack." That statement would apply in June 1950 when the North Koreans stormed south, and again later that year when the Chinese entered the war.
Then came 9/11.
It was an uncommonly bright and beautiful late summer morning, one of those rare meteorological days when nowhere in the United States were the skies darkened with clouds and rain. We arose from our beds, ate breakfast, got the kids on the bus and off to school. Husbands and wives shared that perfunctory kiss before parting, secure in the sense that they would be reunited that evening. Freeways loaded up with commuters. At airports, passengers checked in and boarded. Planes backed away from the gates, taxied out, and took off. It was just another busy day.
For some, the first indication that something had happened was the sporadic transmissions from aircraft that were being hijacked. For most of us, however, the first time we knew anything was wrong was when the networks broke into their regularly scheduled programming to cover what was assumed to be a horrible accident. An airliner, presumably loaded with passengers, had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. We paused in our activities to take in the shocking view of a skyscraper with an unholy gash in its side spouting smoke and flames. Seventeen minutes later, the world watched live as a second airliner banked in, took aim, and crashed into the second tower. Without being told, we knew that it had been a deliberate act.
For the first time since the War of 1812, war had come to American soil.
We were still trying to get our heads around the enormity of what was happening when we were told that yet another airliner had lanced into the west side of the Pentagon.
We were gripped with helpless fear. And anger. Looking aghast at the televised images, some still couldn't shake the feeling that this was somehow just another Hollywood action thriller. But uppermost in our minds was the certain knowledge that thousands had already died, and many more would perish before this day was done.
In the skies over Pennsylvania, passengers and surviving crew members of United Air Lines Flight 93 were learning about the disasters on the ground even as their own aircraft was being hijacked. Convinced that their plane was destined to become yet another missile, they decided to act. In what was the first offensive act in the Global War on Terror, the passengers attacked, using only what improvised weapons they had available -- boiling water, plastic knives, the drink cart, fists and feet. They managed eventually to break down the cockpit door and were within reach of the controls when the hijackers dove the airliner into an exhausted strip mine outside Shanksville.
We felt that the limits of the horror we could feel had been reached, only to see first one, then both of those once-invulnerable thousand-foot towers pancake into the ground, taking with them hundreds of civilians, firefighters, and police officers.
That long day did finally end, but sunrise on the 12th revealed in New York mounds of twisted metal, pulverized concrete, and the smoke of hidden fires that would burn for weeks. In Arlington, Virginia, within sight of the White House, rescuers and volunteers continued to work in and around the giant hole made by the entry of an airliner, searching for survivors and recovering victims. In that old mine in Pennsylvania, FBI, TSA, and local investigators swarmed around a giant hole in the ground from which no survivors would emerge.
Our world had changed. Our lives would never be the same. Overhead, the skies, cleared of commercial traffic by the FAA, remained uncomfortably silent, broken only by the sound of Air Force fighters flying Combat Air Patrol over their own country.
In the years since, we've changed. We still strive to live our lives and fulfill our dreams, but now always with a watchful eye. We submit without complaint to security measures that once would have been unthinkable violations of person and privacy. The wave of unity and patriotism that washed across the country in the days and weeks after 9/11 receded. Our political divisions present before returned with a vengeance. The anger once directly solely at terrorists has now been turned on each other.
It has been said that a marriage will rarely survive a deep personal tragedy. Perhaps that is what is happening to us.
And yet on the morning of September 11, 2016, we will gather, pause, and take time to remember what happened on that awful, tragic day. We will stand together, perhaps hold hands, and feel once again that fleeting, precious moment of unity.
American writer William Gibson once wrote, "Time moves in one direction; memory in the other." Days are passing. Children who were born that year of 2001 are now getting their learners permits. For them, and all those born afterwards, that day will become a moment of history, rather than the gut-wrenching memory it has been for the rest of us. But the passage of time has that effect. In the 75 years since Pearl Harbor, the date of December 7th has become just another day. Perhaps 70 years hence, September 11th will also share that fate.
A few years ago, I was at the Gettysburg battlefield, standing on the hill known as Little Round Top at sunset. A few feet away stood a family. In the quiet of dusk as the sun began to sink behind the distant hills, a young girl's voice broke the silence: "Daddy, what happened here?"
Her father knelt down, and in those quiet moments in the rays of the setting sun, that story of heroism and sacrifice was passed to a new generation.
9/11 must always remain part of our national conscience, but it will not do so unbidden. It is up to us who remember that day as a memory to pass it to those who only know it as history. We must share not just the horror of the death and destruction, but also the innumerable stories of heroism and sacrifice that also came out of the events of that day. It is so very important that we remember, especially in these days of anger and divisiveness, the kindness and love of which we are truly capable.
Pass to your children and their friends the fact that on that day, there was no such thing as race, or religious differences, or politics. In those hours of desperation and fear, we reached out to each other. And we also reached back. We comforted each other, and in time brought to each other a measure of peace.
Once, the memory of 9/11 was an open wound. The wound has healed, but the scar remains. Let us touch that scar and remember. Let us honor the memory of the innocent victims and the courageous first responders who perished, as well as their families and friends who share an aching void in their hearts.
Let us renew that promise we made that day; the promise that We Will Never Forget.