Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11. — Barack Obama
Last Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. Does that qualify it now as “long ago?” Maybe that’s why we need to be reminded by those indelible images playing over and over again on TV. Otherwise we might begin believing what some already do — that it never happened.
That would be so easy because what did happen seemed, by any measure, to be virtually impossible. Most of us older than 30, anyway, can remember exactly where we were when it began. For me: Crisp September Tuesday, Shelter Island School. I had just finished teaching my first class, 5th grade Language Arts, and was passing by the Social Studies room on my way to the copy machine.
The classroom door was open, the TV flickering, but I don’t remember hearing anything. I was struck by the rapt attention given to the screen by the teacher and the entire class. They seemed to be watching a movie, an action flick of some kind of a plane flying into the side of a skyscraper, made to look sort of like one of the Twin Towers in New York City.
Yes, we all remember where we were, each of us in an instant ripped from the comfort of the ordinary and dragged into a sudden on-going nightmare of smoke and fire and death, whether we were blocks away or across the country. What degree of “unimaginable” must’ve been faced by those in one of those planes, in one of those towers?
Our first responders have set the bar for heroism, many of them undertaking a doomed mission to save lives. But so many of us, ordinary people of every description with no gear, no training, rose to the terrifying occasion and helped each other. Perhaps, after all, what saved our nation’s life that day, and in the days to come, was that to one degree or another, this horror didn’t happen to Republicans or Democrats, people of color or whites. It happened to Americans.
Even though for the next few weeks we stood together, united, over the past 20 years, each one of us has had to process this holocaust in our own way, and many of us are still at it. It’s not surprising that for some, the wound feels fresh and raw.
In a Sept. 8, 2021 report for National Public Radio, Jaclyn Diaz writes: “Two more victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center have been identified in New York City — just days before the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. ‘Twenty years ago, we made a promise to the families of World Trade Center victims to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to identify their loved ones, and with these two new identifications, we continue to fulfill that sacred obligation,’ said Dr. Barbara A. Sampson, chief medical examiner of the city of New York.”
So, yes, we all remember where we were. The question is, where are we now?
Faced with the grueling new terror of COVID-19, which to date has taken some 650,000 American lives, we seem even more hate-filled and divided than ever. Was the unity we felt 20 years ago just a fleeting illusion, or does 9/11 still have crucial lessons to teach us?
One of them might be that “unity” in no way means “uniformity,” but rather a shared belief in the irreducible values of our nation: freedom, equality, justice for all, and a shared responsibility for the nation’s greater good.
As I write this column today on 9/12/21, my little brother is turning 70. For the past 20 years, his natal day has been laboring under the heavy pall of a still-grieving nation. A few weeks ago, my sister-in-law issued all of us an invitation to his 70th birthday party to be celebrated on Saturday, 9/11!
Though it makes perfect sense, I was startled, but then pleased. For me, at least, with the invitation, that infamous date had been resurrected somewhat, and given its place once again in the eternal rotation of days we call the calendar. A day not just for painful reflection and grief, but maybe for joy, too, and gladness, and celebration of marriages, births or perhaps the blessed ordinariness of being, almost, just another day.
But the party had to be canceled. Some family members came down with COVID. Oh, well. Maybe if, finally, “united we stand,” perhaps next year, America.