The gift of September 11 …

Today’s post is an adaptation of a piece I wrote on the 10th anniversary of 9-11. It is worth remembering the day, but it is especially important to remember what happened afterwards. 

The sky was an exquisite shade of blue that morning. Nothing hinted at the immediate future — or the malevolence that had taken flight. In the city, New Yorkers boarded subway trains, sipped on cups of coffee and greeted colleagues. In Harrisonburg, students shuffled toward their 9 o’clocks. It was a beautiful day.

IMG_1431Until 8:46.

The news came in pieces. One student in Godwin Hall’s computer lab heard classes were canceled. Something had happened. As a friend drove her home in his convertible, she reveled in the gorgeous day. “I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I saw my roommates. They were stone-faced. One said, ‘We can’t get in touch with Katie’s dad.’ That was the hard part. All the phones were down.”

Everyone was glued to a television screen somewhere, in offices, homes and residence halls. We were the reluctant audience to a tragedy. Everywhere a collective gasp rose as disbelief gave way to reality. The World Trade Towers were crumbling. Then the Pentagon. And a plane went down in rural Pennsylvania.

We had touched tragedy before, or at least brushed by it, but this felt different. This was aimed at America, and it had penetrated deep into our collective American heart. Together we shuddered at the sights and sounds. On campus, the president received the chilling message: “He, I feel, is lost and probably not to be found.” Everywhere students craved information about parents, siblings, friends who they knew were too close to the fire. In the end, we would learn our community had lost four of its own.

We all floated in a state of disbelief, like the moment when a roller coaster peaks and then propelled by a reality as powerful as gravity, we plummeted. We were breathless, lightheaded, as we descended into tragedy. As a nation, we recoiled.

And then we reacted.

I, like most mothers, took stock of my children. I drove to pick up my middle-schooler. I’m not sure why, but it felt like the right thing to do. I have often thought of the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the children who had said goodbye at breakfast that morning. What did they do? Students reached out to each other. The world was suddenly insecure. With every step we took, we were searching for normalcy, for explanation, but none came. There was no reason.

College students — who had only been 8 to 11 years old that fateful day — had watched the tragedy through children’s eyes, but the vision still stung. Their remembrances are telling: “I was homeschooled that year and watched it all happen. My sister’s friend died on the plane in Pennsylvania. When you are that age you can remember it all, but you can’t do anything about it.”

“My dad was at a conference. There were a lot of pilots attending and I remember seeing them all cry. I was very concerned for my family’s safety. I wanted to take a self-defense class.”

“School was canceled, but wherever we went people were crying and sad. I did not understand the significance. I was very confused. The attack made me more aware of the world and how much power the U.S. has and how many enemies we have.”

“I remember staring at the blue sky all day long and being afraid of it. It made me feel less invincible.”

“I was beginning 6th grade, and my nervousness about making friends and not getting thrown in a locker by some mustached, pre-teen 8th graders was my priority at that point. I do remember the moment I discovered the towers fell. My teacher tried to break it to us easily.  ‘Something happened in New York today,’ she said, her voice trailing off. The stuffy classroom was silent and for a few minutes, we sat stunned, confused and scared. After regaining some composure, our teacher flipped on CNN, and we spent the rest of the day watching things unfold in a city many of us had seen only in pictures. It was a surreal experience, a bad dream, something intangible and truly unable to grasp.  How does an 11-year-old comprehend the loss of 3,000 lives? How could we understand the destruction of a skyscraper, or the plumes of smoke that covered people in ash as they ran from Ground Zero? Ten years later, I’m not sure I’ve fully wrapped my mind around it.”

On campus, students gave blood in massive numbers. They held hands and cried together. There were no Republicans or Democrats that day, no blacks or whites, no liberals or conservatives. Just us.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”*  What happened in the aftermath of September 11 was exquisite. As smoke cleared over Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, tragedy united us. We were one nation. We rose up together, wounded but resilient. We were not separated by our differences but united in our sorrow. All of our disagreements, both petty and important, sank to the bottom of our consciousnesses. We were hit by a sudden clarity of what bound us together — our freedom and purpose as a nation.

If there is a legacy that we as a nation should cherish from the tragedy of September 11, it is this: What separates us should always be secondary to what unites us. Every one of us — all ethnicities, all political persuasions, all religions, all classes — should strive to recapture and hold on to the unity that was so pervasive in the weeks and months following September 11.

We will never forget the date. It is seared into our American heart just as Pearl Harbor had scarred our collective heart 60 years before. But the farther one moves from tragedy, the softer its impact becomes. Like grief, it fades. Gradually, our unity splintered. Too soon we allowed our politics and religion and divergent points of view to eat away at our unity. Too soon we were caught up in differences of opinion that really don’t matter at all when they are held up against the immensity of what we found when we lost so many.

Martin Luther King once wrote: “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”* If we as a nation learn to subjugate our differences beneath our common identity as we did after September 11, we honor those who died that day. With their loss we were all diminished, and we must never forget the inestimable value of what we lost — and what we gained.

If we can rekindle, breathe life into the unity that we knew immediately after the towers fell, if we can place in permanent and proper perspective the value of each American above our own special and petty interests and opinions, then we can keep the gift from September 11. If that happens, those lost … will have died to create a world better than the one they left. Their lives, their deaths, will shore up the bedrock of a nation like none other: a nation that rushes to give blood, to aid neighbors, that shares its wealth and knowledge, that has as its foundational principal the inclination to lift each other up.

Monuments built at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., will long tell the story of those we loved and lost on that fateful morning. But monuments no matter how beautifully crafted, no matter how grand or expansive, do not sufficiently honor those who died. The only honor that will approach their sacrifice is if we unite to change the world. Our national unity, the precious and seemingly fleeting glimpse that appeared following September 11, must be reignited and stoked, in as much as we hold up a brilliant bright light for a dark world.

It is not pride or arrogance that should lead us, but the humble recognition that 2,819 individuals by their tragic deaths brought us all to our knees and to our senses. We are one nation. It is the great gift from September 11, and it will last as long as we cling to it.

*Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray   *Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

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