… 20 years…
The cursor blinks. And blinks. What do I write next?
… 20 years…
You will have so much to read about this anniversary, what unique can I offer...
There is a flood of thoughts, of that bright fall day and of all that transpired afterwards, of lives lost, on that morning and in the ensuing years. Flashes in the mind of all of the world events spawned by that horrific attack, of battlefields distant and close to home. I grasp at them, try to order them, but they defy my attempts. There is a scar that I will forever feel. There are emotions so powerful that tears are never far behind when thoughts turn to 9/11.
… 20 years…
I will leave it to others to pick apart all the meaning of this anniversary, to draw lines of connectivity, from personal memorials at Ground Zero, to the pain of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia, to the erosion of our Constitutional rights, to what we’ve witnessed on the political scene the last few years. How was our current age shaped by the events of that day? We know things would have been completely different, but how? We cannot ever answer the question, even though it haunts us.
… 20 years…
I look back at some of my reflections for previous anniversaries. This was from 2018:
In these days, when a turbulent and uncertain history is being written in real time, September 11 can feel of another age, and indeed it is. It is a day that history will mark, but the sands of time tend to eat away at the immediacy of our memories as we become more preoccupied with the challenges of the present. We never forget, but we tend to remember less often as well.
A whole generation has been born and raised since that fateful moment 17 years ago. They are now confronting their own landscapes of challenge. This is how life works, and this is how time works. We need to teach our history, but not be imprisoned by it.
I have so many dates seared in my mind... December 7 (1941)... June 6 (1944)... November 22 (1963)... April 4 (1968)... August 9 (1974) - just to name a few. They were and are the real backdrop for my time, and those who were on life's journey with me. I want to tell my grandchildren about what they meant. But like me reading about July 4 (1776) or April 15 (1865), they will note them and maybe remember them, but not feel them as I do.
We are on this earth but a short time. Our lives are marked with memories, happy and sad, personal, communal, national, and global. Time strides on. The Earth spins. We pause, to think about the past... and the future.
… 20 years…
Have my views changed of that day with the hindsight of time? I wonder that often. The death then was so immediate, so harsh, so unsparing, so random, so tragic. But as I noted above, 9/11 has receded and now we are confronting a different type of mass death, at a scale that is unimaginable. Except we don’t have to imagine it. We are living it.
Where will we be as a nation, as a planet, 20 years from now? I know it is unlikely I will be here to see it. And then 20 years hence, and 20 years after that? All of it is unknowable. But what the last 20 years has also taught us is that the choices we make matter, and no single outcome should be considered inevitable.
… 20 years…
Yes, it is a long time, but also an instant in the history of our species. Our duty, when we have life, is to remember the past, learn from it, honor it, but use it to reimagine the future. Steady.
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Every 9/11, I post a photo to Facebook that my husband took this from our bedroom window that awful morning. The enormity of what was happening wasn’t yet apparent, and so after taking it, he got on the subway to work. The train that ran directly under the towers. We were so lucky.
I wrote a remembrance essay a few years ago and often share it on the anniversary. It’s about the perfect blue of that sky and the firefighters down the street who were first on scene. It describes the acrid smell that permeated our apartment and the bits of paper that floated in the neighborhood for days. Some years I like to share an interview I conducted with Marianne Pearl whose husband was beheaded in the violent aftermath of war.
But… twenty years in and with this pandemic raging around us, what I want to hold on to this year is the sense of community we all felt. At the moment, it seemed natural, but looking back today I realize how truly amazing it was.
In the space of one morning, the deaths of 3,000 and the injury of 6,000 more brought us together as a society in ways no one had seen since Pearl Harbor.
We cared for each other. We called friends, family and acquaintances across the nation to check in. We put politics aside. We constructed a social network to help where needed. We sacrificed for each other.
Strangers literally gave each other the clothes off their back. They shared sips of water from the same bottle so everyone could have some. They took those stranded into their homes. They circled the day care cribs at the Pentagon. They stormed the cockpit over Pennsylvania.
And we flooded the blood centers, even though there weren’t many who survived long enough to need it. We gave each other seats on the subway. We applauded every fire truck and every police car going by for months. We looked, even though we wanted to look away, at the photos of those lost, taped up in public places by grieving families and friends… and we kept looking, for months. We watched the memorials and donated to the fundraisers.
In the span of a few hours, the terrorists brought us together. A common enemy, such a brazen attack, such visible scars in DC, PA and of course NY, will do that. The following war certainly did, at least at first.
And still, we persist with our flag waving and our name reading and our memory sharing and our #NeverForget hashtagging. Now going on 20 years: a generation.
It matters. I truly believe that.
But it feels… different… this year, and not just the big round commemorative number.
We are facing another common enemy, a viral attack, the visible scars at 4.5 million dinner tables and worn everyday, securely fastened over our mouths and noses. And we are coming apart at the seams. We are not caring for each other. In fact, some of us are doing everything to thwart any efforts to care by anyone else. Some are actually sneering at their neighbor’s illness or death.
It blows my mind to have witnessed in the span of my lifetime the best of humanity at the worst of times but also the worst of humanity at a time when the best would not have been so hard to do.
Can we pretend the virus is a plane, and our community the Pentagon?
Can we form a bond with the people around us, say “Let’s roll” up our sleeves and wrestle for control of this aircraft?
Can we rush into the burning buildings, take the stairs up hundreds of floors, breathing heavy through the masks we are wearing, to help others find a way to safety through the smoke and fire?
Can we innovate ways to protect our children from the unforeseen threat, circling the cribs again?
Can we gather up our courage to put out the deep fires beneath the political debris pile and get to work on rebuilding?
Can we hoist a flag over the wreckage that is today and rally around it together tomorrow, knowing it will take every one of us to be successful?
I know we have the ability. I have seen it. But do we have the will?
I’ve been disappointed not to have seen it in enough of us thus far. We have the tools - masks, social distancing, and really effective vaccines. We know what the virus does and know how to protect ourselves from the carnage. But too many of us aren’t.
If there was a vaccine that would roll back time and prevent those 9/11 planes, would enough of us do it? I don’t know.
We’ve had 200 9/11s in terms of death toll from Covid. The comparison is as clumsy as it is ugly, but the numbers don’t lie.
Of late, I can feel myself getting more and more bitter about that lack of societal will. I often remark how this would be a fascinating psychological study, if only we weren’t living through it. I am trying to find more ways to motivate more people, and to keep that motivation alive in those of us working so hard against this virus. Every day I have to spend a little time in the morning feeling helpless, and then I put my shoes on and get to work.
But it’s incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to see people - good people in most other regards - making such casual choices to not wear a mask, not get a vaccine, not quarantine when exposed, not isolate when positive. It’s really hard to do my little job on the fringes of the response, I cannot imagine the feelings of healthcare workers these days.
I would never wish to go back to that day, a day of such fear and destruction, but the reaction of each one of us afterwards is something I wish we could reignite. The zeal to beat back the enemy at hand, even at personal risk or inconvenience. This time, however, the enemy is quite literally within us. We all have to put aside petty politics, quit expecting to know every single side effect, stop putting our short term comfort ahead of our neighbors’ long term health and look inside ourselves for the answers.
I know we have the ability, and I pray we find the will that we had on 9/11 and 9/12 and 9/13 and the rest of those sad days we spent caring for one another after the planes crashed.
And we can add to the list of your dates Jan 6 (2021). Thank you once again for your thoughts