If we don’t do it any other time, every year when September 11th rolls around, those of us who were around in 2001 reflect on where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. My calendar calls it “Patriot Day.” Others refer to it as “Remembrance Day.” And it is good, therapeutic even, to remember.
I was a college sophomore, eighteen years old, carpooling with Thomas to our Tuesday morning class. He liked to listen to a morning radio show that grated on my nerves. The hosts were crass jerks, so when we heard one of them say that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Towers, we figured it was some kind of sick joke. It was soon apparent, however, from the hosts’ shocked-sounding voices that they were merely giving a play-by-play of what they must have been watching on live TV. And as we searched for a parking spot, we heard that the second tower was hit. One of the hosts said one plane could be a terrible tragedy, but two was terrorism.
I was numb. Terrorism? In New York City? Thomas and I walked to our class, where everyone whispered or sat in shocked silence. Our professor, when she arrived, had no idea what had happened, and we were all too shell-shocked to say anything. She apologized profusely for it the next time our class convened. I don’t know if anyone remembered what happened in class that day.
Thomas and I went our separate ways for our next classes; we felt we had to because what if the other professors hadn’t turned on the news? We still didn’t understand the ramifications of what had happened. I walked into my classroom, and the TVs, which were usually off, showed more smoking wreckage – but not of the Twin Towers. One of my classmates was a military wife, and she was in tears. That’s how I found out about the attack at the Pentagon.
The rest of the day, week, and month were surreal. I didn’t know any of the victims, but I live in a military town and have family in the military. Everyone was glued to the TV or theorizing about what would happen next. We clung to our families for comfort.
I remember, as days passed and the likelihood of finding survivors lessened, watching people on TV as they showed pictures of loved ones. One man had a photo of his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. Too many days had passed, I knew, but I still prayed for her to be found safe. She wasn’t. There are too many stories like that.
Then someone created a slideshow, and it became a horrifying Internet sensation. Every picture was of a person jumping out of one of the Towers, choosing to end their lives rather than wait for the buildings to collapse. I didn’t know whether to be offended or savagely proud that someone had captured the last moments of those people’s lives. It seemed like exploitation. I can’t imagine the despair of the jumpers – or family members who saw that slide show. I prayed for them, too.
If remembering is what we do today, it’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity. Why didn’t we prevent it? Why did it happen to begin with? How can we stop such atrocities from ever happening again? It’s easy to point fingers, not only at leaders back then but at more current leaders. While an attack of that magnitude hasn’t happened again, there are other terrible acts that have happened. Too many. And no matter what we do, we will never be able to eradicate evil. Was that too strong a word? I’ll say it again: evil. I didn’t say the devil or blame it on something mystical. Maybe people aren’t evil to the core – I don’t know. But they certainly commit evil acts, and when they are bent on those acts, all the second-guessing in the world can’t stop them.
I won’t apologize for getting overly emotional or being so direct. But I also can’t end it there. Almost three thousand lives were lost September 11th, 2001. But not all of those people were the victims in the buildings that were hit or the planes that hit them. First responders sacrificed their lives to save as many as they could. They will say that they simply did their jobs, and that’s true; they had excellent training that carried them into dangers that many of us wouldn’t be able to face. They are the good in this equation. Does that mean they never made a bad decision, that they maybe didn’t say something they regretted before leaving the house that morning? Of course not. They’re human, too. But in the moments that mattered, they chose to face horrible odds, some dying in the process. Thanks to them, the death toll didn’t reach three thousand.
On this day when I can (and do) remember the terrible things, instead of dwelling on them, I remember that there are people who will do the right thing, when it comes right down to it. They won’t sit by and video the event, won’t run the other way, thinking it’s someone else’s problem, but instead they’ll give of themselves – even unto death – to help someone else. And for all of you who did that then and do that on a daily basis, I cannot thank you enough.